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Key to Victory 

The Triumph of British Sea Power 
in World War II 

Key to Victory 

The Triumph of British Sea Power 
in World War II 


Lieutenant-Commander P. K. KEMP 

F.S.A., F.R.Hist.S., R.N. (Retd.)^ 
(Admiralty Archivist and Head of Historical Section) 


Admiral of the Fleet 

Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope 

K.T., G.C.B., O.M., D.S.O. 


"Believe me, I shall never more take my hat off for anything less 
than a British Seaman. It is easy to subscribe a million of money 
at Lloyd's, by putting your hand in your pocket; but it requires the 
hearts of lions, and the fortitude of untameable spirits, to attack 
the bold front of defiance . . . and bend it to your purpose" 

JOHN ECKSTEIN, writing from the Diamond Rock, 

17th February, 1804 





Published in England under the title 




Foreword by Admiral of the Fleet Viscount Cunningham of 

Hyndhope, K.T., G.C.B., O.M., D.S.O. n 

Preface 13 

1 The Drift into War 1 5 

2 Operations off Norway 36 

3 Dunkirk and the Italian Intervention 70 

4 Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Matapan 100 

5 The Darkening Scene 126 

6 The Atlantic Menace 1 50 

7 The Bismarck Operation 163 

8 The Edge of Disaster ^ 190 

9 Mediterranean and Arctic Convoys 216 

10 The Turning of the Tide 251 

1 1 Atlantic and Arctic Victory 274 

12 Victory in the Mediterranean 296 

1 3 The Liberation of Europe 315 

14 The Setting of the Rising Sun 344 
References 366 
Index 373 

List of Illustrations 

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound facing page 48 

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Andrew Cunningham 48 

Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Tovey 48 

Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay 48 

Admiral Sir Philip Vian 48 

Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser 48 

The Graf Spec burning off Montevideo after being scuttled 49 

H.M.S. Glowworm ramming the Hipper 49 

The German battle-cruiser Gneisenau at full speed 66 

Dunkirk, May 1940: a destroyer about to enter the harbour 66 

The Italian battleship Cavour beached after the Fleet Air Arm 

raid on Taranto 67 

A Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber 67 

The Battle of Cape Spartivento: Italian bombs dropping 

round the Ark Royal 128 

The Illustrious is hit by German dive-bombers in the Mediter- 
ranean 128 

The Battle of Sirte: a British destroyer emerges from the 

smoke-screen 129 

A destroyer about to attack with torpedoes during the Sirte 

battle 129 

H.M.S. Ark Royal torpedoed 144 

U.66o sinking after being attacked by the corvettes Starwort 

and Lotus facing page 144 

An Atlantic convoy zig-zagging at sea 145 

The German battleship Bismarck firing at the Hood 145 

The magazines of the battleship Barham exploding after she 

had been torpedoed 208 

Wounded men of the torpedoed cruiser Manchester are 

brought up on deck 208 

The tanker Ohio reaches Grand Harbour after her ordeal 209 

The invasion of North Africa: a troop transport off Oran is 

protected by a smoke-screen 209 

An incident during the passage of Convoy PQ 18 224 

H.M.S. Nairana pitching in a heavy sea 224 

Naval landing-craft passing the cruiser Mauritius on the way 

into Salerno 225 

The surrendered Italian battleships Italia and Vittono Veneto 

at anchor 225 

The Tirpit( in her Norwegian hide-out 286 

The Fleet Air Arm attack on the Tirpiti in Alten Fjord 286 

Admiral Ramsay, General Eisenhower, and Field-Marshal 

Montgomery on board the cruiser Apollo off Normandy 287 

German beach defences in Normandy 287 

Mulberry Harbour : a "Phoenix" being towed across Channel 304 

One of the supporting gun-vessels during the attack across the 

Schelde on Walcheren 304 

The Atlantic victory: a German U-boat comes in to surrender 305 

A Japanese suicide aircraft attacks H.M.S. Formidable 305 

List of Maps 

1 The North Sea Page 51 

2 The Coast of Norway 54 

3 The Eastern Mediterranean 118 

4 The North Atlantic 158 

5 Gibraltar Approaches 182 

6 Indian Ocean and Pacific 207 

7 The Indian Ocean 213 

8 The Western Mediterranean 229 

9 Convoys to North Russia. Theatre of Operations 234 
10 The Bay of Bengal 349 


K.T., G.C.B., O.M., D.S.O. 

IMMEDIATELY after the conclusion of the Second World War 
the Admiralty had intended to bring out a single-volume work, 
based on the official documents of the war, describing the naval 
effort between 1939 and 1945 in the struggle against Germany, 
Italy, and Japan. It had been hoped to have this book ready for sale 
to the general public in 1948. Owing to a variety of circumstances, 
however, this project never materialised. The proposal was resusci- 
tated in 1956, when Lieutenant-Commander P. K. Kemp, R.N., the 
Admiralty Archivist and Head of the Historical Section, was invited 
to undertake the work. 

Into this one volume the author has managed skilfully to com- 
press the whole story of the war at sea during the Second World 
War. Those who may wish for a more detailed account of naval 
operations will find it in the official Cabinet Office history, in three 
volumes, by Captain S. W. Roskill, D.S.C., R.N., of which the 
first two volumes have now been published. 

Wisely, in my opinion, the writer here has aimed to give the 
reader a broad and comprehensive picture of events and strategy, 
pausing now and again to describe more fully the actions and 
episodes of outstanding importance which illustrate the central 
strategic theme. This was a war in which, for the first time, the air 
arm made its appearance as a significant weapon, and Lieutenant- 
Commander Kemp makes clear how essential it is to pay full 
attention to its proper use at sea, and how smoothly it blends, when 
used with imagination and wisdom, in the art and exercise of 


command at sea. He also points out most graphically what may 
happen when, as in Norway and Crete and off Malaya, the enemy 
has unfettered use of air power. Throughout he stresses the abso- 
lute necessity of close co-operation between the three fighting 
Services and also between Allies. He also emphasises that in time of 
war the fighting ships and the merchant fleets, with their personnel, 
are interdependent and indivisible. All these points are well brought 
out at appropriate places in the narrative. 

This book deserves a wide circulation among English-speaking 
people, and indeed among all people who value our way of life. 
The story it has to tell is a proud one. It is also a story with a moral, 
for on the day we forget what the sea has meant, and still means, to 
us, we lose our independence as a nation. It is argued sometimes 
that the advent of the aircraft, and even more the advent of nuclear 
warfare, has lessened the value of sea power. In my opinion 
Lieutenant-Commander Kemp, in this completely factual account 
of what sea power meant and achieved in this last war, makes quite 
plain its lasting influence in the life of any island nation. For my 
part, I would say that, from whatever angle the problem is ap- 
proached, the fact remains that in 1957 we are as dependent upon 
the sea for our existence as we were a century or two centuries ago, 
or shall be a hundred years hence. 



THE study of sea power in war, and its influence on campaigns 
and actions fought for distant from the oceans, is an exercise 
which has appealed to many historians. It is therefore with 
some trepidation that I venture to add yet one more volume to the 
many which have already appeared on this subject. There is, per- 
haps, some excuse for the present volume, in that it attempts to 
relate the study of sea power to the course of the last war, and to 
show the influence which it exerted both on the formulation of 
grand strategy and on the actual course of the land campaigns. 

In its essence the story of British sea power is the story of the 
Royal and Merchant Navies. Of necessity, therefore, much of this 
book is concerned with the major naval operations of the war in an 
attempt to show how they fitted into, and in their outcome influenced, 
the major strategical pattern. The full story of the naval operations 
of the last war is being excellently told by Captain S. W. Roskill in 
his three-volume official history, The War at Sea, of which 
the first two volumes have now been published. In attempting 
to present, in a single volume of modest proportions, this overall 
picture of the naval war, I have been able to study the documen- 
tary evidence which exists in the Admiralty, the Service and some 
other Ministries, in addition to the captured enemy records. 
Numbered references to some of these official papers, which as 
yet are not available for public examination are made as unobtru- 
sively as possible in the text. The purpose is the possible value 
they may have for the future historian in plotting some sort of a 
course through the mass of documentary evidence which will, 
presumably, find a permanent resting-place in the Public Record 


Office after the lapse of the statutory number of years. Needless to 
say, all the opinions expressed and the inferences and conclusions 
drawn from my study of these papers are entirely my own. 

It had been proposed by the Admiralty to produce some such 
book as this within three or four years of the ending of the war, 
but for various reasons it fell by the wayside. When, some five years 
later, the decision was taken to revive the project, though as a 
private and not an official venture, I was given the inestimable benefit 
of the work of my predecessors in this task, and to them I am most 
grateful. I am also deeply indebted to the staff of the Historical 
Section of the Admiralty, whose profound study of the last war, 
whose valuable advice, and whose willing co-operation in point- 
ing out where I had gone astray in my facts made my task so 
much the easier. I have also had invaluable help from Admirals 
of the Fleet Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope, Sir Charles 
Forbes, Lord Fraser of North Cape, and Lord Tovey of Langton 
Matravers, who have all been kind enough to read through the 
typescript and give me the benefit of their advice. Another to 
whom I owe an equal debt of gratitude is Viscount Alexander of 
Hillsborough, First Lord of the Admiralty during the greater part 
of the war, who also read the typescript and helped me with his 
advice. Captain S. W. Roskill was kind enough to let me see the 
typescript of his second volume and part of his third, before 
publication, which proved a great help in my task. To them all, and 
to many others too numerous to mention, my very grateful thanks 
are due. 

i^th January, 1957. 

Chapter i 


THE four and a quarter years of war which came to an end in 
1918 left many naval legacies. Of them all, perhaps the most 
important was a more vivid awareness that Britain was still 
an island nation, was still dependent on her merchant shipping for 
her existence in spite of modern weapons and modern methods of 
war. That shipping had been attacked during the war with a ferocity 
never before experienced, and at times to an extent where the 
ability to carry on fighting was brought to the razor's edge of 

It was not that this prime naval duty in war had been forgotten or 
was neglected during those four years of battle. Three hundred 
years of experience lay behind the Navy of 1914, and all of it told 
the same story. But in 1914 two new factors were at work. There 
had been radical changes since the earlier days in the weapons of sea 
power, and war had come before these new weapons had been fully 
mastered or, indeed, fully understood. The submarine, the torpedo, 
the aeroplane, all of them were virtually new, and there was no real 
background of experience or knowledge against which their per- 
formance in war could be judged. More important still was a change 
in the traditional national strategy. For the first time for centuries 
Britain no longer used her command of the sea as the basis for her 
war strategy. She fought this campaign mainly as a military power 
on the Continent, and in such a war the Navy could take little share. 
So it was, at times, that there was a faltering in the prosecution 

of the chief naval duty in war. So it was, at times, that the nation's 
fate trembled on the brink. 

It was not only on the naval side that unfamiliarity with the new 
weapons spelled near-disaster; the same story was being written on 
the blood-stained fields of Flanders. 

With the new weapons had come a new ruthlessness in waging 
war. When victory finally crowned the concerted efforts of the 
Allied might, it rested on a slaughter unprecedented in the history 
of European civilisation. Across the wide floor of the Atlantic, amid 
the vast war cemeteries of France, Gallipoli, and Palestine, lay the 
bones of British youth. And with the victory came a revulsion of 
feeling against war as a means of settling international disputes. 
The public conscience was appalled by the astronomical losses of 
fighting men, and public feeling set the pattern of the uneasy years 
which were to follow. The war which Britain and her Allies had 
just fought came, in those early, hopeful years of peace, to be known 
as "the war to end all wars". 

It was in this almost universal concept of no more major war that 
the Navy settled down to absorb the lessons of the conflict just over. 
One further factor arose to bedevil the scene, that of a financial 
stringency unexampled in its severity. It did not, of course, alter the 
lessons to be learned, but it made them infinitely more difficult to 

Ageing ships were not replaced by new construction, arbitrary 
limits on the size and armament of ships were accepted under inter- 
national agreements, and manoeuvres at sea were carried out at slow 
speeds to economise in the expenditure of fuel oil. In such a setting 
it was difficult to achieve the realism so necessary in exercises if 
warlike experience was to be imbibed. 

It was partly in this spirit of universal hopefulness and partly for 
reasons of financial economy that, at the Washington Naval Con- 
ference of 1921-2, Great Britain accepted a lower standard of tiaval 
strength than normally she would be prepared to consider. To all 
intents and purposes it was a one-power standard, and it became 
officially so three years later on a recommendation of the Committee 
of Imperial Defence, Under the terms of the Washington Treaty 


the Navy of Britain was limited, both in numbers and size of ships, 
to equality with that of the United States, while the navies of France, 
Italy, and Japan were all established on a lower maximum level. In 
those early years of peace it was only the Navy of Japan that could 
constitute any sort of a threat to our merchant ships at sea, for the 
other European navies were all in a state of serious decline and a 
war with the United States was unthinkable. The ratio of superiority 
over Japan as accepted at Washington was 5 : 3, and it was reason- 
ably certain that, accepting the existing European navies at their 
face value, there was sufficient margin of strength to hold Japan in 
the event of a Far Eastern conflict while still retaining adequate 
naval strength in home waters. 

For the first few years of peace the Navy was chiefly occupied 
with the normal run-down from wartime to peacetime strength. 
The rapid reduction in both ships and men which automatically 
follows a major war will always produce a period of unbalance, and 
the years from 1919 to 1923 were no exception. But while it could 
normally be expected that succeeding years would show a redressing 
of the balance, there were in 1923 political and economic factors 
which delayed that return to full naval health. In the interests of 
national economy a Cabinet assumption, made in August 1919, that 
for the purposes of framing the Service Estimates it could be 
assumed that there would be no major war for ten years, was given 
in 1923 the force of a Cabinet rule. 

At that time it was a reasonable enough assumption, if taken with 
its corollary that, after the lapse of ten years, the fighting Services 
were to be ready again to play their parts in the event of war. But 
by decision of the Government this "Ten Year Rule" was renewed 
each year, so that any form of rebuilding or re-equipping the fleet 
on anything but a very minor scale was made impossible. Modern 
ships of war, with their complex equipment, cannot be built in a few 
weeks. Like the oak tree, the instrument of sea power grows slowly. 

As the second decade of the century passed, the decline in the 
fighting strength of the Navy continued. As even the strongest 
castle will fall into ruins if neglected for too long, so also will a Navy, 
and the Navy of Great Britain was no exception to the rule. It was 

little consolation to know that, under the terms of the Washington 
Naval Treaty, the navies of other nations were equally hamstrung, 
for, unlike Britain, the integrity of their merchant shipping was not 
so vital a need* 

One other political decision, though of an earlier year, also had 
its effect on the fighting efficiency of the fleet. This was the decision, 
taken in 1917, to amalgamate the air services of the Navy and the 
Army and to reconstitute them in a third, and independent, armed 
Service the Royal Air Force. In its broader aspects, this denied to 
the Navy any effective control of its air arm, both in tactical develop- 
ment and in the provision of aircraft designed specifically for the 
purpose of sea battle. There was no lack of naval appreciation, even 
in those comparatively early days of aviation, of the vital part which 
air operations, in conjunction with a fleet at sea, would play in war, 
and this denial of Admiralty control had a naturally stultifying 
effect on the orderly development of naval aviation in what should 
have been its formative years. Its effect was to reduce still further 
the ability of the Navy to perform its essential tasks in war. 

With governments all the world over pledged to peace, and 
moreover backed up by electorates still vividly aware of the dread- 
ful slaughter of 1914-18, prospects of even a modest naval re- 
armament were singularly remote. Yet there were not wanting 
prophets in the wilderness. As early as 1925 the Committee of 
Imperial Defence were recommending the continuation of installa- 
tion work at Singapore, so important a naval base for the mainten- 
ance of the communications by sea of Australia and New Zealand, 
and in 1931 the Service Ministries called attention to the terrible 
deficiencies caused by the "Ten Year Rule*' under which our 
naval strength had now been so diminished as to render the Fleet 
incapable of affording efficient protection to essential trade in war- 
time. Their warnings fell on deaf ears, 

In the following year the Service Chiefs of Staff, through the 
Committee of Imperial Defence, returned to the attack, and this 
time with slightly more success. The Cabinet, as a result, authorised 
the abandonment of the "Ten Year Rule", though at the time they 
laid down a new ruling that, in a period of financial crisis and 


industrial depression, any new expenditure on rearmament must 
inevitably be deferred. But in view of the Japanese aggression in 
Manchuria, which was launched in September 1931, die Govern- 
ment decided to go ahead with the development of Singapore as a 
fully equipped naval base. 

The main naval preoccupation at the Admiralty during these 
years was the emergence of Japan as a potential enemy in die Far 
East. As far back as 1921, in deference to anti-Japanese feeling in the 
United States, Great Britain had not renewed her Treaty of Alliance 
with Japan and had thereby added profound problems to her Far 
Eastern naval strategy. In place of a friendly Japan there was now 
a brooding, restless Power athwart the routes used by the ships 
linking the home country with Australia and New Zealand, a Power, 
moreover, smarting under the fancied slight inflicted at Washington, 
where her naval strength had been limited to a lower ratio than that 
of Great Britain or of the United States. The emaciated state of the 
Royal Navy during these years, and the standstill of development 
work at Singapore, could hardly be expected to act as a deterrent to 
any Japanese thoughts of expansion. Japan struck at China, and a 
flaccid League of Nations condoned the aggression by its failure 
to act. 

The days of Far Eastern preoccupation were numbered, however, 
for a new danger was arising nearer home which was largely to 
submerge the more distant threat. On 3Oth January, 1933, President 
Hindenburg called Adolf Hitler to the Chancellorship of Germany. 
Four weeks later the flames of the Reichstag acted as a beacon to 
Blackshirts and Brownshirts to round up and exterminate the 
political opponents of the new creed of Nazism. In a night of terror 
those unhappy men disappeared from human ken. The resulting 
elections, organised by Goebbels, swept the Nazis into power, 
and the gentler flame of German democracy flickered and went 

Hitler did not take long to show his hand. His first international 
act was to sabotage, by his withdrawal, the Disarmament Confer- 
ence of 1933, sitting in Geneva; his second was to walk out of the 
League of Nations; his third was to declare that Germany would 


tread the path of rearmament. All three had been accomplished by 
October 1933. 

The British reaction was swift. The three Chiefs of Staff, study- 
ing the implications of these three German moves, came to the 
conclusion that Germany, under her new rulers and with her 
known capacity for rearmament should she press it to the utmost, 
could be ready for a major war by 1938. They recommended that a 
committee should be appointed to study and prepare for the Cabinet 
a detailed programme for making good the deficiencies of the armed 
forces. The Cabinet agreed and before the year was out a Defence 
Requirements Sub-Committee was set up for this purpose. 

The members of this sub-committee were the three Service Chiefs 
of Staff, and a senior representative from both the Foreign Office and 
the Treasury. Their first report was in the hands of the Cabinet on 
23rd February, 1934, and its naval recommendations were that all 
existing battleships should be modernised (under the Washington 
and London Naval Treaties no new capital ships could be con- 
structed until 1937); naval bases and fuel depots should be brought 
completely up to date; a large expansion in anti-submarine equip- 
ment should be put in hand, including the fitting of trawlers with 
asdic apparatus; and finally that the Fleet Air Arm should be 
considerably augmented. 

The financial implications of the report were not unduly arduous, 
even by the standards of 1934. The extra expenditure over the five 
years 1934-8 was estimated at 71,300,000, of which the Navy was 
to receive 21,000,000, while in addition the proposed naval 
replacement programme would cost a further 72,500,000. These 
sums, of course, were additional to the normal annual Service 
Estimates, but even at that it added no more than a further 
144,000,000 to be spread over the five years in question. 

Political and economic considerations in 1334 made even that re- 
latively modest addition to the national expenditure unwelcome, and 
the Government was forced to look for means of reducing it. A pro- 
posal to limit the inevitable expansion, made necessary by German 
intransigence, to the Royal Air Force alone on the ground that the 
main danger to this country from a German declarator! of war would 


lie in bombardment from the air, was not accepted by the Cabinet. 
But the Government was not prepared yet to put the case of British 
rearmament to the electorate, and the recommended expenditure was 
cut by one-third. 

Even less happy was their decision to depart from the Com- 
mittee's proposal for a co-ordinated strengthening of all three 
Services together and to allocate instead the major part of the money 
to rearmament in the air, for that was to force an unbalance in 
overall defensive strength. The Army bore the main brunt of the 
Cabinet's cuts, and it is against this decision of 1934 that the true 
background of the military debacle of 1940 really lies. 

So, in 1934, Britain took her first steps along the road of rearma- 
ment. Thatthey were halting steps was not entirely due to the Govern- 
ment of the day, for behind it lay an electorate still unwilling to 
shoulder the rearmament burden. Speaking retrospectively about this 
period in the House of Commons in 1936, Mr. Stanley Baldwin said : 
' 'I asked myself what chance was there . . . within the next year or two 
of that feeling being so changed that the country would give a 
mandate for rearmament. Supposing I had gone to the country 
and said that Germany was rearming, and that we must rearm, does 
anybody think that this pacific democracy would have rallied to that 
cry at that moment? I cannot think of anything that would' have 
made the loss of the election from my point of view more certain." 1 
We may well consider as blameworthy a political party that places 
its own fortunes above the national need, but can the people of 
Britain be considered absolutely blameless themselves ? It was they 
who, in the last resort, held the power. 

The Navy's share in the 1934 rearmament was relatively modest. 
The estimates for that year made provision for the ordering of a 
new aircraft carrier, to be given the honoured name of Ark Royal, 
four cruisers, and the normal annual flotilla of one leader and eight 
destroyers, besides submarines and smaller craft. Only in the 
ordering of the Ark Royal was there any real sign of increased 
naval rearmament, for the other new construction was no more than 
sufficient for the usual atuiual replacement of obsolescent ships. 
But at least it was a start, and a start, too, in a significant direction. 


Events in Europe and elsewhere, however, refused to stand still, 
overtaking with truly alarming rapidity the modest rearmament 
measures to which Britain had reluctantly committed herself. During 
the late summer of 1935 the United States, in a welter of nervous 
isolationism, passed her Neutrality Law, and thus effectively barred 
any reliance by Britain or any other belligerent, in the event- of 
conflict, on the manufacturing resources for war material of that 
great nation. In the first week of October the Italian dictator let 
loose his army across the borders of Abyssinia, to confront Britain 
with a probably hostile power astride the Red Sea through which 
passed so much of her merchant shipping. And six months later, on 
9th March, 1936, the German dictator matched his Italian friend by 
marching into the demilitarised Rhineland in contravention of the- 
Treaty of Versailles and also of the later Locarno Treaty. Here was * 
a deliberate challenge, and here, too, was a chance of confronting 
the growing military power of Germany with an armed strength 
that was still infinitely superior. For a week or two the fate of 
Europe hovered in the balance. But France, torn by internal political 
dissension, and Britain, mildly isolationist and still passionately 
desirous of peace, let the chance slip through their fingers. The 
Rhineland was occupied by Germany without the spilling of a drop 
of blood, and the German frontier with France was thereby ad- 
vanced no less than 100 miles and to a river line that was more easily 
defensible. Almost equally important was the growth of Hitler's 
personal prestige in Germany in "getting away with it" against the 
counsel of his military advisers. The European stage was now being 
set for Hitler's Drang nach Osten, his advance to the East. 

To the Service Chiefs of Staff the occupation of the Rhineland 
was the danger signal. The Committee of Imperial Defence set up 
a sub-committee, called the Ministerial Defence Plans (Policy) 
Committee, in order to examine the defence plans of the Chiefs of 
Staff in the light of Government policy, and to provide a nucleus 
for a War Committee or War Cabinet should a conflict develop. 
Its first act was to consider a memorandum from the Chiefs of Staff 
with the title "Planning for a war with Germany", in which it was 
assumed that the war would break out in the latter part of 1939. ^ n 


the light of subsequent events the accuracy of the forecasted date 
was remarkable. 

The material side of the memorandum was set out with startling 
detail and realism. In order to meet, with balanced forces, the threat 
of war by the second half of 1939, the Chiefs of Staff estimated 
essential expenditure over the next five years of a sum between 
1,760,000,000 and 1,811,000,000. 

Once more the Government intervened, reverting to the suggestion 
of 1934 that full priority need only be given to the Royal Air Force, 
with the other two Services lagging behind, the Navy only slightly 
and the Army considerably. The matter was referred to the new 
Minister for Co-ordination of Defence, Sir Thomas Inskip, whose 
office had been created in 1936, soon after the Rhineland occupation, 
in order to correlate the deficiency programmes of the three armed 
Services and to act as deputy for the Prime Minister in his chairman- 
ship of the Committee of Imperial Defence. Sir Thomas Inskip, 
remarked that to maintain the security of the nation in war was the 
whole cornerstone of defence policy. He listed the resources of man- 
power, the industrial capacity, and the well-tried and well-known 
endurance of the British people as the mainstay of national security, 
and stated that unless they were maintained substantially unimpaired, 
especially during the shock of initial attack in war, the country 
would face ultimate defeat in a major war. This may have been a 
statement of the obvious, but at least it set out the fundamental basis 
of the problem. From it he went on to list four main objectives 
in the prosecution of a war with Germany: 

(a) The protection of the United Kingdom against attack. 

() The preservation of our merchant ships for the import of 

essential materials. 
(c) The provision and maintenance of forces for the defence of 

British territories overseas. 
(J) Co-operation in the defence of Allied territory. 

It is to be presumed that these objectives were set out in order of 
merit, for the fourth objective was jettisoned by the Cabinet in 
deference to the view that all rearmament must be carried out 


within the limits of financial stability. The Chiefs of Staff re- 
monstrated against the dropping of this objective, but without 


Under the Cabinet approval of the earlier Defence Requirements 
Sub-Committee's report, the First Lord of the Admiralty had 
introduced a Supplementary Estimate in the Commons in 1936 to 
give effect to the first stage of naval rearmament. Parliamentary 
approval was given, now that the Washington Treaty ban on the 
construction of new capital ships had expired, to place orders for 
two new battleships of modern design, to be called the "King 
George V" class. At the same time contracts were placed for one 
more carrier, five cruisers, nine destroyers, four submarines, and 
six sloops, later to be given the generic name of convoy escorts. 
These were small ships of 1,250 tons and moderate speed, the fore- 
runners of the frigates, sloops, and corvettes which were later to 
play so great a part in the task of convoy protection and U-boat 
killing throughout the years of war. 

Cabinet endorsement of the Minister for the Co-ordination of 
Defence's memorandum of 1937, with its proposal to expand one 
Service (the Royal Air Force), at the expense of another (the Army), 
resulted in allocation of a total of 1,570,000,000 for defence over 
the next five years. Unfettered at long last by the financial curb of the 
Government, the Naval Estimates for 1937 reflected the effort to 
repair the damage caused by the years of complacency. Three more 
battleships of the "King George V" class, two more fleet carriers, 
seven cruisers, sixteen destroyers, seven submarines, and three con- 
voy escorts, in future to be known as escort vessels, were ordered. 

There was, however, still one fly in the ointment. On economic 
grounds it had been laid down by the Cabinet that the rearmament 
programme was to be implemented without interfering with normal 
trade. Inevitably that meant delays. It was not difficult to place the 
orders, but to get them carried through with reasonable speed in 
competition with the demands of industry was completely impos- 
sible. The nation's rearmament, which looked so impressive on 
paper, lacked reality in terms of ships, guns, and aircraft. 

And all the time the enemies of Britain were arming. No con- 

sideration of normal trade held up German deliveries; for the entire 
country social, industrial, and financial had been geared to a 
war economy since 1934. Sprawled across the centre of Europe, 
effectively dividing the democracies of the "West from those in the 
East, totalitarian Germany was erecting a barrier of steel behind 
which to carry out her barbaric aggrandisements. The three coun- 
tries of the "Little Entente" Rumania, Yugoslavia, and Czecho- 
slovakia with whom France maintained a treaty of alliance and on 
whose territorial integrity the balance of European power lay poised, 
were in the process of being isolated. Already the shadow of the 
crooked cross was to be seen in Austria and Czechoslovakia, in the 
former by the political clamour of the Austrian Nazi Party, suc- 
coured by Germany, in the latter by the claims of Henlein and his 
Sudeten Germans for incorporation into the Reich. It was the 
writing on the wall. 

On yth March, 1938, the German Army marched into Austria. 
The last tenuous link between France and Czechoslovakia, the 
mainstay of the "Little Entente", was severed. There could be no 
doubt now about Hitler's intentions. It was war, and whether it 
came now or later was a question only of political juggling. Equally 
apparent was Hitler's strategical concept. With the right bank of the 
Rhine in his hands and his fixed defences in tfre West, he could hold 
the Western democracies with a few divisions while he struck in the 
East. And almost before this strategy could be fully appreciated he 
implemented it with a demand for the cession of die Sudetenland, 
in which lay the Czech frontier fortifications and the great Skoda 
armament works. 

In Britain the Chiefs of Staff reacted quickly. They urged the 
Cabinet to rescind the ruling that the rearmament programme must 
not be permitted to impede the course of normal trade. Under the 
new stress of European events the Cabinet agreed; indeed, they 
went further and instituted measures for working three shifts in the 
armament factories and for directing firms engaged in peacetime 
work into war production. The paper programme of rearmament 
began to show results, but they were coming too late. 

Events in Europe now began to gather speed. From Germany, 

heralding her next step, a clamour of abuse of Czechoslovakia arose. 
It was the typical Nazi prelude to a solution by intimidation or by 
force. In the light of this obvious and immediate threat to European 
peace obvious because of France's treaty with Czechoslovakia and 
of Britain's solidarity with France the Prime Minister, Mr. Neville 
Chamberlain, asked for a report from the Chiefs of Staff on the 
military implications of an alliance with France and other European 
States to resist by force any German attempt to attack Czecho- 
slovakia. Their reply was categorical. They stated, without making 
any qualifications, that the country was not ready for war, that no 
measures offeree, whether alone or in alliance with other European 
countries, could now stop Germany from inflicting a crushing 
defeat on Czechoslovakia, and that any involvement in war with 
Germany at this stage could well lead to an ultimate defeat, through 
her unpreparedness, of this country herself. 

r lt is in this report by the Chiefs of Staff that we find the true 
background to Munich. In its essentials it informed the Prime 
Minister that, no matter what the cost, war must be averted until the 
rearmament programme began to bear substantial fruit. It placed 
him in a position from which there was no escape; national prestige, 
national honour, the obloquy of future generations, none of these 
could weigh against his overriding duty to his country, to gain 

It was not on the naval side that the Chiefs of Staff based their 
fears, though the lack of adequate strength in escort vessels raised 
an ugly problem in the protection of merchant shipping. It was in 
the air that the weakness of Britain was most alarming. Intensive 
propaganda in the years between the wars had raised an unholy fear 
of die bomber and its powers of destruction. In the light of after- 
knowledge it is sometimes difficult to recapture those beliefs of 
1930-40, fostered as they were by horror stories of mass slaughter 
and destruction; but at the time, with no background of experience 
as a guide, they were readily accepted as true. And from the figures 
there was no escape. Against an Air Ministry estimate of the German 
first-line bomber strength of 1,350 machines (the actual figure was 
i,i28), 2 Great Britain could pit no more than 100 eight-gun fighters 


(Spitfire and Hurricane) and 500 obsolete fighters with insufficient 
speed to overtake the German bombers. 3 

So occurred Munich. For that unhappy betrayal of Czechoslova- 
kia we are prone to blame the Prime Minister of the day, Mr. Neville 
Chamberlain, and his Government. The true blame, however, lies 
wider than that. It lies at the door of all those, of whatever political 
party, who opposed or neglected Britain's defences between 1919 
and 1934. 

On 30th July, 1937, came a decision for which the Navy had been 
waiting impatiently for years. This was to transfer from the Air 
Ministry to the Admiralty responsibility for the administration of 
the Fleet Air Arm. Its main, and most important, provision was the 
transfer to naval control of the training of pilots and observers from 
the point where specialisation in naval duties began. There could, 
at last, be true integration between sea and air in the realm of purely 
naval fighting, the welding of two strong weapons into one of 
greatly increased power. With the decision of the Government came 
an expansion of strength in the Fleet Air Arm, both in men and 
machines. One disability, however, remained. Responsibility for 
research, experiment, development, and supply of aircraft remained 
in the hands of the Air Ministry. In the press of their own air 
rearmament programme, the provision of aircraft for the Fleet Air 
Arm tended to take second place and to be no more than navalised 
versions of shore-based types. What were needed were machines 
individually designed and tested for the highly specialised duties 
which they would have to perform at sea. 

In the quickening pace of rearmament the naval building pro- 
grammes made good headway. The capital ships and the carriers 
ordered in 1936 and 1937 were, of course, comparatively long-term 
projects, but the smaller ships cruisers, destroyers, submarines, 
and escort vessels were beginning to reach the fleet in 1938 and 
1939. At first a trickle, they increased to a moderate stream to swell 
the growing strength of the Navy. Yet, continually, events on the 
mainland of Europe overtook the pace of British rearmament. It 
seemed that the time which Mr. Chamberlain had bought so dearly 
at Munich was not to be sufficient for the nation's needs. 

The agreement at Munich had been signed in the early hours of 
the morning of 3Oth September, 1938. Less than six months later 
the pledges which Hitler had given there had been thrown to the 
winds. On i4th March, 1939, German troops marched into an un- 
resisting Prague, and the Czechoslovakian Republic was incorpor- 
ated, through a German protectorate, into the Reich. Another 
bastion of defence against totalitarian aggression had fallen without 
a struggle. 

The Chiefs of Staff, in their report of March 1938 to the Prime 
Minister on the implications of resistance to a German assault on 
Czechoslovakia, had envisaged the first brunt of an ensuing war 
falling on Britain. They expected to see a German attack on France 
held by the defences of the Maginot Line, with heavy air attack on 
Great Britain as the only German alternative in a Western war. 
Their report, naturally enough, was subjected to earnest study in the 
Admiralty, not only by the existing naval staff, but by the new First 
Sea Lord designate, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Backhouse. 
One aspect of this study, of course, was that of existing and expected 
naval strength in relation to the major tasks of naval war, and for 
this purpose preliminary staff talks with the French Admiralty were 
begun in order to co-ordinate essential naval strategy as between the 
two navies in partnership. 4 Fuller staff talks were authorised by the 
Cabinet in the first week of February 1939^ and from them the broad 
lines of strategy emerged. It was agreed that in home waters Great 
Britain would station a fleet capable of defeating the German fleet 
as a whole, that the safety of ocean convoys should be a joint Franco- 
British responsibility, that French escorts should assist in the task 
of convoy in the Western Approaches, that a strong French force 
built round two battle-cruisers should be stationed at Brest to deal 
with the threat of armed raiders in the Atlantic, that the western 
Mediterranean should be under French naval control and the eastern 
Mediterranean under British. 

To the First Sea Lord and the Naval Staff, this broad outline of 
agreed naval duties posed many concrete questions. They looked at 
them with the eyes of sailors, measuring up the duties to be per- 
formed in terms of ships required. The essentials were not difficult 


to work out. The first naval necessity in 1939 was still the same as 
it had been 250 years before, the maintenance of the regular flow of 
shipping in the face of enemy attack. That was still, as it had been 
all through history, the fundamental pedestal on which alone an 
overall war strategy could be securely built. 

It was on this aspect of the combined staff talks, and especially 
on the particular problem of convoy, that the Sea Lords cast an 
anxious eye. On paper, the naval superiority of Britain and France 
over that of Germany was overwhelming, and even over Germany 
and Italy combined the margin was still impressive. But the figures 
on paper told only part of the story. Britain, as a maritime power, 
had essential commitments in every ocean in the world, and was 
dependent, moreover, for every facet of everyday life on the security 
of her merchant ships at sea. To her, and through her to France, the 
ability to fight, even to survive, rested on her ability to use the 
broad oceans for her merchant ships how and when she wished. 

This vital requirement, studied in terms of ships, revealed a 
weakness that might well open the door to disaster. The convoy 
lessons of 1917 had never been fully digested, indeed to some extent 
had been forgotten, but in the number of ships that would be avail- 
able for escort duties it was clear that there still lay a serious shortage. 
Sir Roger Backhouse sought the advice of his Deputy Chief of 
Naval Staff designate, Vice-Admiral Andrew Cunningham, a de- 
stroyer specialist of the previous war and with added experience in 
that arm as a Captain (D) between the wars. What was needed to 
fill the gap was a type of ship that was inexpensive, quick to build, 
and of reasonable endurance for convoy work. From his knowledge 
of the former war Admiral Cunningham brought forward the case of 
Admiralty "S"-class destroyers of 1917 and 1918, ships of about 
i ,000 tons displacement, of which quite a few were built and brought 
into commission in from nine to twelve months from the date of 
ordering. He suggested that, with the design brought up to date, this 
type of destroyer might help to fill the gap. So was born the "Hunt" 
class of fast escort vessel. Though they failed by four knots to reach 
their designed speed of twenty-nine knots and proved unsuitable 
for escort work in the North Atlantic, they were reasonably quick 

to build and went some way in redressing the adverse position in 
the Mediterranean. The first batch of them was ordered in the early 
months of 1939. 

Another type of ship ordered in 1939 was the "Flowers-class 
corvette, a development of the whale catcher. A total of fifty-six of 
them was ordered before the outbreak of the war. Valuable as these 
corvettes, and also the "Hunt"-class, proved to be, they still could 
not make up for the lack of destroyers, of which none at all had been 
ordered in the 1938 programme. That was a shortage which was to 
make itself felt throughout the whole course of the war, for the 
losses among these invaluable ships were severe and never very far 
behind current production. 

The German occupation of Czechoslovakia laid bare the next 
step to be taken in Hitler's march to the East. Poland was now 
effectively outflanked, and the preliminary chorus of abuse echoed 
loudly from end to end of the Reich. It was a signal only too well 
known. It had been heard before the rape of Austria, it had preceded 
the spoliation of Czechoslovakia. Now it presaged the downfall of 

There was, in these early months of 1939, no love in Britain for 
Poland. The forced cession of the Czech Sudetenland to Germany 
under the Munich agreement had been followed by an unprincipled 
claim by Poland for the Teschen area of Czechoslovakia, and that 
dismembered country had been forced to accede to the Polish 
demand. But with the Germans now in Prague, Poland assumed a 
political importance which forced Britain to overlook her former 
aggression. It was time now indeed, the time was long overdue 
to serve notice on Germany that any further act of armed interven- 
tion in the affairs of a foreign State could be carried out only at the 
risk of a major war. The situation in which Poland found herself in 
March 1939 presented the opportunity. On the last day of the month 
the Prime Minister informed the Houpe of Commons that Britain 
had given a guarantee to come to the aid of Poland should she be 
attacked. The guarantee was extended also to Rumania. 

This was notice to Germany indeed, unmistakable and uncom- 
promising. It threatened Hitler with war on two fronts should he 


continue his programme of expansion in the East, it upset com- 
pletely his plans of conquest at the expense of the "Little Entente'* 
powers. His basic strategy had lain on the assumption that he could 
hold the West at bay behind the recently constructed defences along 
the German frontier with France, while one by one he absorbed the 
smaller nations of the East and the rich plains of the Ukraine. Only 
when that vast meal had been properly digested had he contemplated 
full-scale war against the "Western democracies, France and Britain, 

The guarantee to Poland and Rumania could be implemented not 
by direct aid, for that was geographically impossible, but only by 
active war in the West, in Hitler's rear. Yet there lay to hand one 
key which might still be used to unlock the way to Poland's rein- 
forcement. Along her eastern frontier lay Russia, whose enigmatic 
policies since the Revolution of 1917 had been the despair of 
Western politicians. There was, however, a gleam of light. Perhaps 
in anticipation of the hoped-for absorption of the Ukraine, the people 
of Germany were being conditioned to hatred of Russia by the 
familiar chorus of abuse. In that fact lay hope that Russia could be 
persuaded to join forces with the West in the stand against further 
German expansion in the East. 

The efforts made to use this key were doomed to failure. There 
were many causes. Russia, though alive to the danger and in fear of 
the German expansionist drive towards her frontiers, still nourished 
bitterness against the Western powers for their failure to invite her 
to take part in the Munich conference. Poland, with a memory of 
past partitions at the hands of her neighbours, had no wish to see 
Russian troops on her soil, even if they came as allies. Both Britain 
and France had a fundamental distrust of Russia, based mainly on 
the democratic dislike of dictatorship. And looming in the back- 
ground, casting a malignant shadow over all negotiations, was the 
military weakness of the Western nations, a weakness still not over- 
come by the slow pace of rearmament. For the Russian leaders, 
above all, were realists. They were concerned not so much with the 
moral obligations of the European set-up as with the numbers of 
divisions, tanks, aircraft, ships, and guns that Britain and France 
could throw into the struggle. "How many divisions," asked Stalin, 


"will France send against Germany on mobilisation?" "About a 
hundred." "How many will England send?" "Two, and two more 
later." "Ah," said Stalin, "two, and two more later. Do you know 
how many divisions we shall have to put on the Russian front if we 
go to war with Germany? More than three hundred." 6 It was in 
conversations such as this that hopes of alliances foundered, for it 
was useless to talk to Stalin of the part which British sea power 
could play in the struggle. The profound value of sea power in war 
was far beyond Stalin's comprehension. 

The last hope of an accord with Russia disappeared on 3rd May 
when Litvinov was replaced as Foreign Commissar by Molotov, 
though the Western diplomats remained in Moscow for three more 
months in renewed attempts to bring about a last-minute compact. 
On 3rd May, too, the anti-Russian stream of abuse in Germany 
ceased abruptly. There could be only one meaning, though its very 
absurdity made it wellnigh unbelievable. 

It burst upon an astonished and bewildered world during the 
night of list August with the announcement from Russia that the 
German Foreign Minister was flying to Moscow to sign a non- 
aggression pact. The declaration sealed the fate of Europe. Nothing 
now could stop the war, and its coming was likely to be counted in 
days, rather than in weeks or months. The last few grains of sand 
were running out through the hour-glass of history. 

Thirty-six hours later, on the actual day that the German-Russian 
pact was signed, the Admiralty made its first preparatory move, 
taking over the control of all merchant shipping. On the following 
day, 24th August, all ships in commission at home were ordered to 
their war stations, and the ships of the Reserve Fleet were ordered 
to be manned up to full war complement. On the same day six 
submarines were sailed to maintain, at twelve-mile intervals, that 
part of the line of search across the North Sea which was beyond the 
range of Coastal Command's Anson aircraft. Two days later, on the 
26th, four cruisers left Scapa to put into operation the Northern 
Patrol between the Faeroe Islands and Iceland and across the Den- 
mark Strait. Finally, on the last day of August, the Commander-in- 
Chief Home Fleet, Admiral Sir Charles Forbes, sailed from Scapa 


with the fleet "to intercept and shadow" 7 any German ships that 
they might encounter at sea. On the morning of 3rd September, 
having seen no sign of enemy activity, the Commander-in- Chief 
turned for home. The fleet was still at sea when the signal to com- 
mence hostilities with Germany was sent out from Whitehall. A few 
hours after the declaration of war the destroyer Somali captured the 
first prize at sea of the war, a small German merchantman. 

The German Navy, too, had been making its dispositions in 
anticipation of the actual declaration of war. On 2ist August the 
pocket-battleship Admiral GrafSpee, under cover of darkness for 
her passage of the North Sea, slipped away northabout and reached 
her waiting position in the South Atlantic unobserved. Three days 
later the Deutschland, another pocket-battleship later to be renamed 
Liitiow, followed her out with equal success, to take up her position 
in the North Atlantic. Their supply ships, Altmark and Westerwald, 
joined them out there, their departures also unobserved. At intervals 
between i9th and 29th August, seventeen ocean-going U-boats 
were despatched to their Atlantic war stations, and on the 2ist seven 
of the smaller coastal type were sailed into the southern North Sea, 
to lay mines off the Channel potts as soon as the declaration of war 
was announced. Six more left their bases on the 25th for patrol areas 
in the central North Sea. 

So, as the last hours of peace ticked remorselessly away, the rival 
navies faced each other across the oceans. It was turning out almost 
exactly as foreseen by the Chiefs of Staff in an appreciation sub- 
mitted to the Cabinet in June, with one important exception. All 
that was to be expected in the initial stages of the war, said the 
Chiefs of Staff, was an enemy attack on merchant shipping, both 
by cruiser and by submarine, and as a result the first British and 
French dispositions at sea were made to counter it. In the known 
state of the German Navy, indeed, there was little else it could do. 
The one exception, however, was to have a considerable bearing on 
the first months of war. Pre-war naval planning had been based on 
the assumption that Mussolini would join his partner in the war 
without delay, and as a result much of the British and French naval 
strength was tied down in the Mediterranean. As the first months 


of war passed with no signs of Italian participation, the ships 
stationed there formed a useful pool in the early stages to sustain 
operations elsewhere. 

The ocean stage was set with all the old hereditary skill Up in 
the far North, blocking both the exits there into the Atlantic and 
the entrances into the North Sea through which the German mer- 
chant shipping would have to pass to reach their home ports, the 
cruisers of the Northern Patrol kept watch. From the Shetlands to 
the coast of Norway a line of search was stretched, partly air, partly 
submarine. At Scapa lay the main strength of the Home Fleet, more 
than capable of dealing with any surface threat that the enemy could 
produce. In the Channel, based on Portland, a strong squadron 
barred the southern exit into the Atlantic. The four home naval 
commands Plymouth, Portsmouth, the Nore, and Rosyth each 
had light forces of destroyers, anti-submarine vessels, and mine- 
sweepers for local defence and convoy duties, while at Blyth and 
Dundee flotillas of submarines were stationed to carry the naval 
war into German home waters. In the light of existing knowledge 
in 1939 it was a net strong enough to catch and hold any would-be 

In the last few months before the sombre clouds of war settled 
over an embattled Europe, there had been important changes in the 
higher direction of the naval war. Since mid- April a serious illness 
had incapacitated Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Backhouse, and 
his duties as First Sea Lord had been carried out by the Deputy 
Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham. In mid- 
June, Admiral Backhouse resigned he was to die a month later 
and the Navy was shorn of its professional head at a most anxious 
moment. From the Mediterranean came Admiral Sir Dudley Pound 
to tske over the post of First Sea Lord, bringing to the Admiralty, 
in which he had served for various periods as the Director of Plans 
and as a Sea Lord, a wide experience not only of high command at 
sea but also of Admiralty procedure. To the Mediterranean to relieve 
him as Commander-in-Chief went Admiral Sir Andrew Cunning- 
ham, who for the previous nine months had been in the centre of 
naval planning as Deputy Chief of Naval Staff. He, too, brought 


wide experience to his new appointment and, moreover, a reputation 
as a fighting seaman. 

There was to be one more change. As the curtain rose to reveal 
the great drama of war the Prime Minister sent for Mr. Winston 
Churchill, already a Minister of the War Cabinet without a Depart- 
ment, and invited him to become First Lord of the Admiralty. 
Mr. Churchill accepted, and in the evening of 3rd September sat 
once more in the room in which he had set in motion, a quarter of a 
century earlier, the first naval moves in the previous war with 
Germany. The fact was announced to the fleet in a pregnant signal 
from the Board of Admiralty, "Winston is back". 


Chapter 2 


THE outcome of past wars had so frequently been decided in 
the final analysis by the exercise of sea power that the main 
strategical structure of the new war which faced the Admiralty 
on that September day of 1939 was not difficult to determine. The 
individual problems within the main structure, however, called for 
far more serious thoughtand study, and it was on their solution and 
their correct application that the success or otherwise of the first 
stage of the war would depend. 

As a nation, Britain had emerged victorious from her wars of the 
past by winning for herself the undisputed use of the ocean high- 
ways of the world while at the same time denying them to her 
enemies. The power of Napoleonic France had perished through this 
British control of the seas; in earlier wars Holland and Spain had 
both been tumbled from their eminence by it. And within living 
memory was the plight of Germany in 1918, starved into surrender 
because the ships that could 'have kept her supplied with the essential 
food and war materials with which to carry on the battle had been 
driven from the seas. The formula of sea power had withstood the 
tests of time; could history be repeated in this new European 
struggle that had once again drawn the British people into its vortex ? 
An essential preliminary for the exercise of sea power in its dual 
rok the power to use the sea when and where you wish and to 
prevent the enemy from using it lay in containing the German 
war effort, in so for as it was capable of containment by sea power, 


in the smallest possible space. A glance at the map of Europe gives 
the answer. The Baltic was a closed sea to the Allies in the face of 
modern naval weapons and air power, leaving open to German 
ships not only the invaluable Scandinavian iron-ore trade, but also 
such imports as could be smuggled down this central corridor. 
Although for five months of the year the ice of winter might close 
the Swedish ports engaged in this trade, the territorial waters of 
Norway presented the enemy with an alternative all-weather route 
in their place. 

There was only one way in which sea power could operate to 
minimise this avenue of contact with the outside world, and that was 
by a system of contraband control of Scandinavian imports. Neutral 
ships at sea, bound to or from European ports, were intercepted by 
naval vessels on patrol and brought in to special anchorages where 
their cargoes were examined for contraband. Measures for this con- 
trol had been worked out before the declaration of war, 1 and con- 
traband control bases were set up on 3rd September at Kirkwall to 
cover the northabout route and at Ramsgate for the Channel route. 
It could have no effect on the iron-ore trade itself, of course, but it 
could prevent the import into Germany, via those Scandinavian 
countries, of valuable raw materials consigned to neutral sources for 
onward transmission to the enemy. Some estimate of the efficiency 
of this control of contraband can be gained from the fact that, in the 
four months of war ending in December 1939, 529,471 tons of 
commodities destined for Germany were seized and condemned in 
prize. 2 The German side door into the Mediterranean, through a 
friendly Italy, was closed by similar control bases at Gibraltar, Port 
Said, Haifa, and Malta, though only partially closed because of the 
political need to avoid alienating Italy so violently as to force her 
into the war straight away. The back door through Russia, opened 
by the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939, was 
beyond the reach of the Allies. It remained open for many months 
until Hitler, victim of his own intuition, slammed it in his own face. 

So, with the Navy blocking those German avenues of trade 
within its reach, the ring around the enemy was drawn. From the 
south of Norway, across and down the North Sea to the French 


frontier, and through the length of the Mediterranean Sea, Allied 
sea power held the ring. Allied land and air power filled the con- 
tinental gaps. To the north, the west, and the south the strangulation 
of German trade began; to the east the open door remained. 

It was outside this ring that the problems accumulated. Here 
again the lessons of former wars repeated themselves. In the vast- 
ness of the oceans even the most vigilant of past blockades had not 
been able to prevent the escape of privateers and occasional squad- 
rons to harry, sink, and capture our merchant shipping. In the war 
of 1914-18, whose lessons had been so painfully learned, those same 
privateers, in their modern form of U-boat and armed raider, had 
found the way through the net, like their predecessors, without 
undue difficulty. It was equally certain that in 1939 the same sort 
of marauders would again slip through to cause destruction and 
delay on the trade routes. It was expected, too, in spite of the Anglo- 
German Naval Treaty of 1935 in which both nations had agreed to 
accept the rulings of the Hague Convention in the conduct of war 
at sea, that Hitler's U-boats would, as had the Kaiser's in 1917, 
honour those rules only in the breach. 

In point of fact, both U-boats and raiders at the outbreak of war 

had been given orders to observe the principles of the Hague 

Convention in their attack on the Allies' shipping, for Hitler had 

high hopes of being able to persuade Britain and France to accept 

a fait accompli and to make peace on the defeat of Poland. The 

over-eagerness of Lieutenant Lemp, commanding U.^o in the 

Atlantic, ruined these good intentions. On the evening of 3rd 

September, 200 miles west of the Hebrides, he torpedoed the 13,581- 

ton Donaldson liner Athenia^ which sank an hour or so later with 

the loss of 112 lives. Not unnaturally the Admiralty assumed that 

unrestricted submarine warfare was already in force and took steps 

to accelerate as far as possible the provision of full convoy for the 

most threatened trade routes. At the same time, as a temporary 

stopgap until the convoy escorts could be organised, the three Home 

Fleet aircraft carriers, each with a destroyer screen, were formed 

into hunting groups to comb the Western Approaches for U-boats. 

From Plymouth sailed the Courageous on 9th September and the 


Hermes on the I4th, both with escorting destroyers. Although both 
groups were quickly in contact with U-boats through sightings 
from the air, their efforts were not crowned with success. From 
Scapa, up in the north, the Ark Royal and her destroyers put to sea 
on the i ith. U-boats were sighted and attacked on the i2th and i3th, 
again without success, but on the i4th a submarine attack on the 
Ark Royal herself led to swift retribution. The carrier had little 
difficulty in avoiding the torpedoes by the use of helm, and three of 
her destroyers quickly accounted for the assailant. She was t^.jp, 
and the whole of her crew were taken prisoner. Three days later, 
however, the Courageous, on her second cruise from Plymouth, was 
torpedoed and sunk 350 miles west of Land's End by Z7.2p. It was 
the end of these hunting groups, for large carriers were too valuable 
to be risked in this fashion. They were at once withdrawn from this 
task, and for the next three years the answer to the Atlantic U-boats 
lay in the hands of the convoy escorts, both surface and air. That it 
was the correct answer was to be proved in the actual test of war. 

Other blows also fell. Within twenty-four hours of the outbreak 
of war a U-boat laid nine magnetic mines in the contraband anchor- 
age in the Downs. They were quickly followed by others, laid 
mainly by aircraft, and for a time they paralysed the movements of 
shipping up and down the coastal waters. The chance to learn their 
secrets came when one was dropped in the mud of the Thames 
Estuary, and they were laid bare by the technical skill and personal 
gallantry of a small band from the Torpedo School at Portsmouth, 
who dismantled the mine as it lay in the mud. It was a task in which 
one false movement meant instant death. There was no false move, 
and the dismantled mine provided the answer to the problem. Ships 
were girdled electrically to neutralise the magnetism of the mine, 
and special sweeps were quickly devised which exploded them in 
the main convoy channels without damage to the sweepers. A great 
force of minesweepers was rapidly built up and their gallant opera- 
tions kept the merchant ships moving throughout the war. 

Even more embarrassing was the penetration of a U-boat into the 
main fleet base of Scapa Flow and die sinking by her of the batde- 
ship Royal Oak with heavy loss of life. Here again was an example 


of the economic stringency which had so characterised those pre- 
war years. A survey of Scapa Flow in 1937 had revealed the gap in 
the defences through which Lieutenant Prien took U.4? on the 
night of I3th/i4th October. A suitable blockship had then been 
selected, but a government objection to its price resulted in the 
opportunity of purchase being missed. Under the stimulus of war 
that objection was at last removed and another suitable hulk 
purchased. It arrived at Scapa on I5th October, twenty-four hours 
too late to plug the gap in the defences which had cost the Navy 
one battleship and 831 valuable lives. It also cost the temporary 
withdrawal of the fleet from Scapa, partly to Rosyth and partly to 
Loch Ewe, on the west coast of Scotland, until a complete new 
survey of the Scapa defences could be made and much additional 
work done to them. 

In the final planning for the war that had now fallen upon Britain 
it had been stipulated by the Chiefs of Staff 3 that the preliminary 
period must be conducted strictly on the defensive. To do otherwise, 
except in a limited degree on the naval front, would, they laid down, 
inevitably prejudice any chance of ultimate victory. This view was 
accepted by the War Cabinet. "Time," they said in effect, "is on our 
side," and instructions were given, and agreed to also by the French 
Government, 4 that planning should be based on the assumption 
that the war would last for at least three years. Here, indeed, was the 
result of neglect in the wasted years that had gone by. The chance to 
exert strong naval pressure in the Mediterranean against the weakest 
end of the Berlin-Rome Axis, where the odds were still favourable, 
had to be forgone. In its place was to be seen a relaxation of this 
legitimate pressure upon Italy in the hope of keeping her out of the 
war. The consequences, in loss of blood and treasure, of ships and 
aircraft and equipment, were to weigh very heavily in the final 

Out in the Atlantic the U-boats and the two German pocket- 
battleships were lying low. In spite of U. jo's blunder in sinking the 
Athema an attack which was hotly denied by the German propa- 
ganda machine Hitler still had hopes that the end of the Polish 
campaign would bring a negotiated peace in its train. So, while it 


suited his plan, the rules of the Hague Convention were enforced. 
But as the weeks passed with no reply to the German approaches, 
the realisation that Britain and France at last meant business was 
forced into the German leader's mind. Step by step the restrictions 
of the Hague Convention were abrogated by the Nazi naval com- 
mand, farther and farther west was extended the zone in which the 
Germans proclaimed unrestricted attack on merchant shipping, until 
by November, to all intents and purposes, attack without warning 
on the high seas was the rule against all Allied shipping. Neutral 
ships, too, were warned that they crossed the meridian of 20 West 
at their peril. 

On 26th September the German Admiralty sent orders to the two 
pocket-battleships to begin operations against Allied merchant 
shipping. The Deutschland, roaming the North Atlantic, captured 
and sank two ships without trace, the first intimation of the cause of 
their loss not reaching the Admiralty until 2ist October. The Graf 
Spee, operating in the South Atlantic, sank a ship off Pernambuco 
on 30th September. This was the s.s. Clement, and her raider distress 
signal was the first positive information at the Admiralty that enemy 
raiders were at sea. The nature of the signal "RRRR" indicated 
that the raider was a warship and not an armed merchant cruiser. 
From the operational state of the German Navy known to the 
Naval Intelligence Division in the Admiralty it was easy enough to 
deduce that the enemy was "either pocket-battleship or Hipper- 
class cruiser", and the information was signalled to all naval 
commands. 5 

To meet this threat to the widespread shipping, by no means 
unexpected, the Admiralty put into operation the plans already made 
to deal with such an emergency. Nine hunting groups were formed, 
each strong enough to destroy a Deutschland, and six were allocated 
to the Atlantic, two to the Indian Ocean, and one to the southward 
of the Cape of Good Hope. Four British capital ships, four carriers, 
and seven cruisers came from the Home, the Mediterranean, and the 
China commands, and the French Navy contributed two capital 
ships, one carrier, and five cruisers. As an additional safeguard, the 
two battleships of the Channel Force at Portland and three cruisers 

were despatched as a strong ocean escort force for the Halifax- 
Liverpool convoys. 6 

To search for one ship in an ocean as vast as the Atlantic is an 
immense task, calling into play resources infinitely more powerful 
than the quarry. The Graf Spee herself made the task even more 
difficult by her comparative lack of success, for accurate intelligence 
of a raider's whereabouts comes only from the positions of her 
victims. Four more ships sunk by her between Ascension Island and 
St. Helena drew the chase in that direction, but by the time it had 
arrived there the Graf Spee herself had doubled the Cape of Good 
Hope, to find her next victim south of Madagascar. In need of re- 
plenishment she returned to her tanker, the Altmark^ in the central 
South Atlantic and re-advertised her position there on the 2nd 
December by sinking the Doric Star south-east of St. Helena. 
She claimed another victim on the 3rd, some two hundred miles to 
the south-west of the first. 

To Commodore Harwood, in command of the South American 
Division of the South Atlantic Squadron, this course was a signifi- 
cant one. Prolonged across the South Atlantic it led almost directly 
to the focal area for shipping in and out of the River Plate. Estima- 
ting the raider's speed at fifteen knots, Commodore Harwood 
reckoned that the Graf Spee could arrive off the Plate in the evening 
of I2th December or the morning of the i3th. He made his dis- 
positions accordingly. The 8-inch cruiser Cumberland, under self- 
refit at the Falkland Islands, was brought, to short notice, and his 
three remaining ships, the 8-inch cruiser Exeter and the two 6-inch 
cruisers Ajax and Achilles^ were ordered to concentrate in the area 
of maximum density of the River Plate shipping. The concentration 
was effected by 7.0 a.m. on i2th December, and the Commodore 
issued his orders. The enemy was to be attacked as soon as sighted, 
whether by day or night. If by day the squadron would act in two 
units, one on either quarter to permit flank marking; if by night 
the ships would remain in company in open order. 7 Every precaution 
had now been taken and all that remained was for the enemy ship 
to appear on the scene. 

The Graf Spee was, in fact, making direct for the area suspected 


by Commodore Harwood. She was due to return to Germany early 
in the new year and Captain Langsdorff was hoping for a spectacu- 
lar success before she left the area for home. 8 She arrived off the 
Plate, as Commodore Harwood had estimated, in the early hours 
of the morning of i3th December and began to search for possible 
victims. At fourteen minutes past six her smoke was sighted by the 
British squadron, at sixteen minutes past she was identified, and at 
eighteen minutes past she opened fire with her two n-inch turrets. 
In accordance with the prearranged plan the Exeter hauled out of 
the line to port to form the second unit, and two minutes later the 
enemy's fire was being returned. 

The Exeter was quickly hit, the n-inch shells of the enemy 
bursting on board and causing considerable damage. In the face of 
great difficulties and with her bridge control wrecked she remained 
on her course, still firing from her after turret, the only one now left 
in action. But while she was bearing the brunt of the enemy's fire, 
both the Ajax and the Achilles were shooting well and their shells 
were hitting repeatedly. 

The action had lasted half an hour when the GrafSpee began to 
use smoke to disguise her movements. This was a tribute to the 
accuracy of the cruisers 5 gunfire; it was also probably the turning- 
point of the action. From this time on the GrafSpee neglected the 
Exeter and appeared more intent on avoiding action with the Ajax 
and Achilles than on closing them to finish them off. Her course was 
taking her direct to the River Plate, and as the morning action faded 
it began to become apparent that she was seeking the sanctuary of 
neutral waters there. Commodore Harwood thereupon broke off the 
action and settled down to shadow her, ready at any moment to 
reopen the battle should she show signs of attempting to break back 
towards the open sea. 

Throughout the day she held her course, and the two British 
cruisers hung on to her. The Exeter, too badly damaged now to pky 
any further part in the battle, was detached to the Falkland Islands, 
and the Cumberland ordered up at full speed to take her place. 
Occasionally, when the shadowing cruisers approached too close, 

the GrafSpee opened fire, but in general her gunnery had begun to 



show signs of raggedness and her salvoes were probably intended 
only to keep her shadowers at a distance. Just before midnight the 
Graf Spec entered Uruguayan territorial waters and at 0050 on the 
i4th she anchored in Montevideo Roads, later entering harbour. 

It was the end of the action, for the GrafSpee had no more fight 
in her. She had been hit twenty times and her captain was firmly of 
the opinion that to venture out again would mean inevitable destruc- 
tion at the hands of the British, 9 Three days later, on iyth December, 
she steamed slowly out into the Roads. The British cruisers cleared 
for action, but they were to be denied a second chance of proving 
their mettle. The GrafSpee stopped in the estuary and scuttled her- 
self. Commodore Harwood's ships steamed slowly past just beyond 
territorial waters to watch the flames reaching almost as high as the 
top of her control tower, "a magnificent and most cheering sight". 10 

The Deutschland, meanwhile, had been ordered home. Her only 
successes during her cruise had been two ships of a total of nearly 
7,000 tons, a poor dividend, indeed, for the expenditure of so much 
effort and time. She slipped through the Northern Patrol during the 
second week of November and reached her base safely on the i5th 
of the month. 

So ended the first wave of German raider warfare. The effort to 
break the ring had been beaten with a serious loss to the enemy. 
There was one further flurry of surface activity at the end of Nov- 
ember when the battle-cruisers Scharnkorst and Gneisenau made a 
brief sortie as an attempted diversion to aid the Graf S fee. They 
encountered and sank the armed merchant cruiser Rawalpindi while 
she was on patrol in the Iceland-Faeroes sector of the Northern 
Patrol. As a diversion it failed, for the ship first sighted, the 
Schamhorst, was reported by the Rawalpindi as the Deutschland, 
and by the time the Gneisenau joined the action the Rawalpindi's 
wireless aerials had been shot away. The Rawalpindi's sighting 
report quickly brought the cruiser Newcastle to the scene, but not 
in time to save the armed merchant cruiser. On the first sight of 
the Newcastle the two German battle-cruisers turned tail and fled. 
In the belief that this was in fact the Deutschland on the way back to 
Germany the Home Fleet sailed to the North Sea to intercept her. 


The Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, however, got through unseen under 
cover of a full gale on the 26th which reduced visibility to little 
more than a couple of miles. 

It was, therefore, on the U-boats alone for the time being that the 
attack on seaborne trade devolved after the sinking of the Graf Spec. 
After the inevitable opening successes against single, independent 
ships in September and October, while the convoy system was still 
being fully organised, the monthly totals of tonnage sunk dropped 
in the next two months to reasonably satisfactory figures, while nine 
U-boats paid the penalty. Although the Admiralty was not deluded 
by these facts into believing that the U-boat threat was being 
defeated, the figures did engender a sanguine hope that the ring 
round Germany, maintained at sea by the Royal Navy, was holding 
reasonably firm. And to buttress that hope there were our own 
submarine successes. On i3th September Lieutenant-Commander 
Bickford in the Salmon torpedoed the cruisers Leipzig and Nurnberg, 
damaging them both, and two days later Lieutenant-Commander 
Phillips in the Ursula sank one of the destroyers that was escorting 
the damaged Leipzig home. 

The first signs of a threat to the security of the sea ring in the 
north came, curiously enough, with the local war between Russia 
and Finland. The Russian attack was launched on 3Oth November, 
1939, and in Britain and France indeed, throughout the neutral 
world a wave of sympathy arose for a small and weak nation 
subjected to wanton aggression by a large and powerful neighbour. 
In belligerent Britain and France there was more than sympathy; 
there was the opportunity, through the provision of material help 
to Finland, of obtaining an additional dividend by gaining control 
of the Swedish iron-ore trade, almost all of which went to Germany 
by means of her Baltic sea routes. There was also the risk that a 
Russian victory in Finland might be followed by demands on 
Sweden and Norway such that Germany might feel impelled to 
intervene in her own interests. And any intervention by Germany 
in Norway, leading to any sort of German control of the Norwegian 
west coast, would inevitably raise naval problems of an uncomfort- 
able magnitude. 


It was a situation that, politically, was fraught with danger. The 
road to Finland was barred by Scandinavian neutrality, and any 
large-scale violation of it would almost certainly provoke strong 
German reaction. Moreover, the Chiefs of Staff had already pointed 
out the grave disadvantages of incurring any further commitments 
in Scandinavia. 11 Yet the lure of this iron-ore trade, with the 
economic damage it could do to the enemy, was wellnigh irresis- 
tible to the War Cabinet. On i9th December the Supreme War 
Council decided as a first step to take diplomatic action in Norway 
and Sweden with a view to facilitating the passage of men and arms 
to Finland and to bolstering the determination of those two coun- 
tries actively to resist any German aggression. 12 In Norway and 
Sweden, however, the fear of German might and of the almost 
inevitable retaliation which would follow effectively stopped any 
hope of organised Allied support for Finnish resistance to the 
Russian threat. Britain and France were reduced to the sending of 
small, clandestine shipments of arms and a few "volunteers". 

The potential value of the Norwegian bases to Germany in her 
conduct of the U-boat war had, naturally, been appreciated as much 
by the German Chiefs of Staff as by the British. As early as loth 
October the German naval Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Raeder, 
had sent a memorandum to Hitler pointing out the importance of 
Trondheim as a bas for submarines. 13 Rosenberg, the apostle of the 
Nazi faith, was thereupon sent to Norway to mobilise opinion in 
favour of a German coup and he found ready listeners in the persons 
of two Norwegian politicians with Nazi sympathies, Quisling and 
Hagelin. On his recommendation Raeder received the two renegade 
Norwegians on nth December, when plans for a German occupa- 
tion of that country were discussed. On the following day these 
plans were submitted to Hitler, and he gave the order to start 
preparations immediately. 14 

So it was that all the belligerents began to cast envious eyes on the 
obvious strategic possibilities of the Norwegian ports. To the 
British and French it meant the denial to Germany of much of the 
vital Scandinavian iron ore, to the Germans it meant not only an 
advanced U-boat base for operations against Allied trade but also 


a useful breach in the Allied sea blockade. But while both sides 
desired the use of Norway's coastline, their approaches to the fulfil- 
ment of these desires differed radically. The German plan envisaged 
invasion and forcible occupation, that of Britain and France followed 
the more tortuous path of diplomatic persuasion and was fore- 
doomed to failure from the start, periodically wrecking itself on the 
rock of Scandinavian neutrality. 

The British and French problem was twofold, whether to attempt 
the major task of stopping the whole of the iron-ore trade, which 
included that of Sweden, or of trying to halt only the Narvik traffic. 
The Chiefs of Staff were in favour of the major operation, even if it 
involved the despatch of an expeditionary force to occupy Narvik 
and military operations in southern Scandinavia against probable 
German retaliation. In their view this could be achieved only with 
Norwegian and Swedish co-operation, for in the then state of 
Allied military strength they could not risk the added and active 
enmity of those two countries which unilateral action would ensure. 
To the War Cabinet, however, the chance of such Scandinavian 
co-operation appeared minute, and it was decided to take instead the 
lesser step of trying to stop the Narvik traffic only. It was thought 
that this step by itself would be unlikely to precipitate a German 
counter-invasion. Using as an excuse the fact of German violation 
of Norwegian territorial waters, the Government of Norway was 
informed that the Allies proposed to act in the matter by stopping 
the iron-ore ships with a flotilla of destroyers. 

The Scandinavian reaction was immediate. Both Norway and 
Sweden sent official protests and the King of Norway backed them 
up with a personal appeal to King George VI to use his influence in 
preventing any such action. In the face of so strong an objection 
the War Cabinet dropped the proposal 

Yet this Scandinavian-German iron-ore traffic remained a power- 
ful irritant, both in Britain and in France. In Britain the main objec- 
tive was the deprivation to Germany of this vital war commodity, 
in France there was also a desire to reduce the German menace to the 
French defences by opening up another front elsewhere. 15 The 
Russo-Finnish war still seemed to offer an opportunity of peaceful 


penetration into the vital areas of Norway, and on 5th February the 
Supreme War Council decided once more to make an attempt to 
secure Norwegian and Swedish agreement to the passage of troops 
to Finland through Narvik, invoking the Covenant of the League 
of Nations as an excuse. 16 But at this precise moment diplomatic 
relations were prejudiced by the Altmark episode, in which a 
British destroyer, H.M.S. Cossack, on i6th February, entered Nor- 
wegian territorial waters and forcibly removed British Merchant 
Navy men, captured by the Graf Spec during her cruise, from the 
German tanker Altmark which was sheltering in a Norwegian fjord. 
Both Norway and Sweden again refused the Allied request. In the 
end, all these negotiations died a natural death when Finnish resist- 
ance collapsed at the beginning of March. 

It is necessary at this stage to take a quick look back at the Allied 
grand strategy. It had been agreed between Britain and France at 
the start of the war, as related earlier, that the Western Allies should 
remain strictly on the defensive while they built up their war poten- 
tial. It had been laid down that "time was on our side". 17 In war, 
however, and especially in naval war, the defensive inevitably brings 
disadvantages in its train. The collapse of Finland was a case in 
point. Neutral opinion throughout the world accepted it as a moral 
and diplomatic defeat for the Allies, and as a similar victory for 
Germany, since Britain and France had so publicly associated them- 
selves with the Finnish cause. It was time, therefore, for the Allies 
to make a revaluation of their essential guiding strategy and to 
initiate some action rather more positive. 

The Chiefs of Staff set the ball rolling with a report that time was 
only on the Allied side provided that they took the fullest advantage 
of it. M In the light of that report the War Cabinet decided to adopt 
a more offensive policy in the economic field, a policy with which 
the Chiefs of Staff expressed their agreement. 19 Almost automatically 
it was the suppression of the Narvik iron-ore traffic which came 
first en the list for discussion to implement the new policy. In the 
absence now of the Finnish excuse, the Supreme War Council came 
to the conclusion that the best way to do this was by forcing 
the German carrying trade out into international waters by the 


(Photo: Imperial War Museum.) 
(Above) The pocket battleship Graf Spec burning off Montevideo after being 

(Below) H.M.S. Glowworm ramming the Hipper off the Norwegian coast in April, 
1940. An artist's impression. 

(By permission of John Thorny croft & Co. Ltd.) 

laying of minefields in territorial waters, regardless of Norwegian 
susceptibilities. 20 The date for the operation was fixed for early 

Allied planning, however, though possibly adequate in broad 
outline, left at this stage of the war much to be desired in its atten- 
tion to detail. It should have been reasonably obvious that, by them- 
selves, minefields in territorial waters could never provide more than 
a very temporary solution to the problem and that they would need 
to be backed up by some more permanent force if serious economic 
damage to Germany was to ensue. In the long run Allied occupa- 
tion of Narvik was the only true answer to the problem of the 
Norwegian iron-ore trade, and for that a field force of reasonable 
size must inevitably be required. In March of 1 940, when the decision 
to lay the minefields was taken, such a force existed. It had been 
assembled as aid for Finland, and warships and transports had been 
allocated for its carriage to Norway. But with the collapse of Fin- 
land the force had been disbanded and the ships dispersed. Instead, 
small forces of battalion strength were earmarked for occupation of 
all the main Norwegian ports on the west coast; but to be used only 
to forestall German landings should they be threatened. 

In comparison with the vacillations of Allied policy over Norway, 
the enemy's policy was clear-cut and positive. As soon as Hitler, on 
I2th December, 1939, had agreed to consider the occupation of 
Norway, planning had begun in meticulous detail. On ist March, 
1940, Hitler finally took the decision to occupy Denmark and 
Norway by force, and the necessary operational directives were 
issued. By the 26th it was possible for the German Chiefs of Staff to 
report that they would be ready to carry out the invasion during the 
new moon period of April (7th-i5th), and on ist April the final 
date was fixed. It was to be 9th April at 5.1 5 a.m. 21 All preparations, 
down to the last man and the last round of ammunition, were 

The small minelaying operation in Norwegian waters planned by 
the Allies was first fixed for 5th April. It was then postponed, on 
account of French objections, but agreed again for the 8th. Three 
fields were planned for laying in the approaches to the Inner Leads, 


one in the north off Bodo, one offStadlandet, and an imaginary one 
(to be declared as a dangerous area) off Bud. The destroyers and 
minelayers detailed to lay the fields sailed from Scapa on 5th April. 
As cover for the minelayers the Commander-in- Chief ordered Vice- 
Admiral Whitworth in the battle-cruiser Renown, with a screen of 
destroyers, to accompany them. Behind them, at Rosyth and in the 
Clyde, lay cruisers and transports with the battalions earmarked 
for Norway already on board. They were to sail only if the laying 
of the minefields were to provoke active German reactions. This 
operation for forestalling German landings in Norway was known 
as Plan R.4- 

The enemy plan, fixed for 9th April, entailed the use of almost 
the entire German Navy. The Norwegian coast, as far north as Vest 
Fjord, came within the purview of these operations, and the occupa- 
tion force for Narvik sailed in ten destroyers. That for Trondheim 
was embarked in four destroyers, and these two forces, having the 
farthest to go, sailed in company. The Scharnhorst and Gneisenau 
sailed at the same time as cover for the Narvik destroyers, the 
8-inch cruiser Admiral Hipper as cover for the Trondheim party. 
All these ships left their German North Sea ports early in the 
morning of yth April. 

They were sighted by British reconnaissance aircraft as they 
were making their way up the Jutland coast. A force of bombers 
sent to attack them from the air failed to do any damage, and the 
Home Fleet, under Admiral Sir Charles Forbes, flying his flag in the 
Rodney, sailed from Scapa in the evening of the same day. As more 
and more reports of movements of enemy ships came in, other 
vessels were ordered to sea by the Admiralty to augment Admiral 
Forbes's forces. They included the four cruisers at Rosyth in which 
the troops for Norway had been embarked. The soldiers were all 
hastily put ashore before the four ships sailed. 

This sudden abandonment of Plan R.4 came as a surprise to the 
Commander-in-Chief. From the many sighting reports of the enemy 
which had reached the flagship he was convinced that a German 
assault on Norway was in progress and that the very conditions for 
which the plan had been devised now held good. It seemed that in 




the Admiralty, in spite of the accumulating evidence, the whole 
German operation was thought to be one of passing the Sckarnhorst 
and the Gndsenau out to the Atlantic trade routes. It is always easy 
to be wise after the event, but if in fact Plan R.4 had been at once 
put into operation, it might have brought considerable advantages, 
particularly when allied to the flexibility which sea power confers. 
It would not have been difficult to switch the destination of the 
troops even after sailing, and as events turned out they could have 
arrived at Narvik just at that crucial moment when the town was 
ripe for seizure. 

So began the campaign for Norway. Instead of the limited 
operation planned by the Allies, with troops standing by for use 
only if required and the enemy fighting a defensive battle at sea, the 
boot was now on the other foot. It was the Allies who were to fight 
defensively and, moreover, with all the disadvantages of their 
inferior geography in this new theatre of war. For them, the battle 
was to be fought beyond the range of shore-based aircraft; for the 
Germans that problem did not exist, since it was a comparatively 
easy matter to fly up the necessary squadrons of fighters and 
bombers by their newly-won all-land route through Denmark to 
the Norwegian airfields, which were their first objectives in the 
attack. This lack of air cover was to prove in the end too great a 
handicap to the Allied forces and was to reveal, for the first time in 
history, the complete dependence of effective operations, both by 
sea and by land, on efficient air cover. 

With the sighting of the German ships on the morning of yth 
April the southern minelaying force was recalled before it had 
reached its area of operations, but the force laying the field off Bodo 
was allowed to proceed. It consisted of four minelaying destroyers 
of the 2oth Flotilla, with its supporting force of H.M.S. Renown 
and eight destroyers. The mines were successfully laid in the early 
morning of 8th April, and as the day advanced the Renown lay off the 
mouth of Vest Fjord, leading to Narvik, with all the destroyers but 
one patrolling the newly-laid field. This one, H.M.S. Glowworm, 
had parted company two days earlier to search for a man who had 
fallen overboard. Having recovered him, she was now on her way 
to rejoin, but the heavy seas had slowed her down and she was 
approximately abreast of Trondheim. Shortly before eight o'clock 
she sighted two enemy destroyers, of which one was the Berndt von 
Arnim, one of the ten ships detailed for the German occupation of 
Narvik. The Glowworm engaged her in a running fight, only to 
meet later the overwhelming power of the Hipper 9 $ guns. She met 
her end gloriously and heroically by ramming and damaging her 
huge adversary. It was not until the few men who survived were 
released from their prison camp after the war that the whole story 
became known and the gallantry of her commanding officer, 


Lieutenant-Commander G. B* Roope, rewarded with a posthumous 
Victoria Cross. 

Her sighting signals, the last of which was faded out and indicated 
her probable fate, were to have a considerable effect on the opera- 
tions which followed. Admiral Whitworth had first steered to her 
assistance, then assuming that the Glowworm's adversaries were 
bound for Narvik, sailed to take up a position where he might cut 
them off. Admiral Forbes detached the battle-cruiser Repulse, the 
cruiser Penelope, and four destroyers to the Glowworm's aid, and the 
Admiralty, by signal from Whitehall, ordered all the destroyers in 
the Narvik area to join the Renown. By doing this, the way to 
Narvik was left unguarded and the ten German destroyers, carry- 
ing the occupation forces, slipped in unchallenged and unnoticed. 
Early in the morning of the 9th the first contact between major 
units took place. Admiral Whitworth, in the Renown, sighted the 
Scharnhorst and Gneisenau as they were withdrawing to the north 
on completion of their task of covering the ten German destroyers 
for Narvik. She opened fire at 4.5 a.m. and twelve minutes later hit 
the Gneisenau, putting her main armament control out of action. In 
spite of a very heavy sea which prevented the destroyers from 
keeping up, and of occasional snow showers which blotted out all 
sight of the enemy, she hit the Gneisenau twice more before the two 
enemy ships, taking advantage of their superior speed, ran out of 
sight to the northward. This lack of enterprise on the part of the 
German Admiral Liitjens is difficult to understand in this isolated 
action. Both his ships were modern and well-found, while the 
Renown was old, was out by herself ahead of her destroyers, and but 
lightly protected with armour. Had Admiral Liitjens turned and 
fought there could have been but one result and Germany could 
have claimed a major success at sea. 

Later that evening the Admiralty ordered Admiral Whitworth 
to return to Vest Fjord and to patrol off the entrance. His task was 
to prevent any enemy ships from entering the fjord. The order 
came, of course, too late, for by this time the German destroyers 
were there, their troops ashore, and the town captured. At about 
the same time the Commander-in-Chief ordered Captain (D) 2nd 






too , o too zoo 



Destroyer Flotilla "to send some destroyers up to Narvik to make 
certain that no enemy troops land". 

Thus the stage was set for the two battles of Narvik which 
followed, the first on loth April, the second three days later. In the 
first, Captain Warburton-Lee with five destroyers his own ship 
H.M.S. Hardy ^ the Hotspur^ Havock, Hunter^ and Hostile entered 
the fjord at dawn high water on the roth. After a difficult passage 
through continuous snowstorms the ships ran into clear weather as 
they arrived off the town. They had made the passage unobserved 
and their appearance was a complete surprise to the enemy. By gun 
and torpedo attacks inside the harbour they sank two of die enemy 
the destroyers Wilhelm Heidkamp and Anton Schmidt and dam- 
aged three others, as well as several merchant ships. On their with- 
drawal, however, they ran into five more of the enemy and, caught 
between two fires, the Hunter was sunk and the Hardy so damaged 
that she had to be beached. Captain Warburton-Lee lost his life in 
the course of the action and his gallantry in pressing home his attack 
was later recognised by the award of a posthumous Victoria Cross. 

The second battle of Narvik, fought on the I3th, sealed the fate 
of the remaining enemy destroyers. Admiral Whitworth, reinforced 
by now by the battleship Warspite^ transferred his flag to her and, 
with nine destroyers in company, entered the fjord during the fore- 
noon. He achieved complete success, sinking the remaining eight 
destroyers and one U-boat, discovered and bombed by the War- 
spites reconnaissance aircraft. Their destruction effectively opened 
the way for the capture of Narvik itself, but by now there was no 
military force available. That hurried disembarkation of the soldiers 
already earmarked and on board at Rosyth was to be sadly regretted* 
As it turned out, Narvik itself was not finally occupied for another 
six weeks, and by that time the progress of events in another and 
more vital sphere of action had made its capture completely un- 

While these events were taking place in the north, there had been 
isolated successes farther south. Naval aircraft from the Orkneys 
attacked and sank the cruiser Konigsberg at Bergen, the submarine 
Truant torpedoed and so badly damaged the cruiser Karlsruhe that 


she had to be sunk by her own forces, and the submarine Spearfish 
caught the pocket-battleship Lut%ow (formerly the Deutschland) on 
her way home from Oslo and torpedoed her, causing very severe 
damage. But these successes had little bearing on the campaign as a 
whole. The enemy had succeeded in gaining his main objectives 
with, on the whole, surprising ease. His troops were ashore and in 
occupation of all the main ports and airfields on the Norwegian 
coast. Oslo, the capital, was in his hands, and reinforcement of his 
Norwegian troops was a comparatively simple matter by virtue of 
his occupation of the whole of Denmark. Only at Narvik had he 
received a really crushing defeat, and even there his soldiers still 
held the port. 

The task now facing the Allies was that of recovering not only 
the ground but also the initiative lost through the swiftness and 
unexpectedness of the German attack. All such operations, especially 
when carried out at a long distance from main supply bases, are 
among the most difficult and hazardous in war, and those in Norway 
were no exception to the rule. It was by no means beyond the power 
of the Navy to transport troops and equipment to the various scenes 
of operations and put them ashore, for that is one of the essentials 
of sea power in which the Navy excelled, but for the troops to 
consolidate themselves there was a very different matter. Not only 
was this campaign now being fought on exterior lines of communi- 
cation, but there were also conflicting priorities amongst the three 
Services themselves which made the task even more difficult. While 
the most pressing immediate need in Norway was for anti-aircraft 
guns, to provide protection from incessant air attack, it was pointed 
out that Anti-Aircraft Command at home, far from being able to 
release any of its own supplies, was still itself short by 12,000 guns 
of the number considered necessary for home defence. Because of 
that, the operations in Norway were sadly hampered. There were 
other, similar, cases too. 

Yet more important still to the outcome of the campaign was the 
need for speed in the despatch of troops. When the four and one- 
half divisions originally designed for aid to Finland were disbanded, 
there remained no more than the few battalions available which had 


been earmarked for use in Norway under Plan R.4. These were ill- 
equipped, insufficiently trained, and inadequately protected against 
the rigours of the Norwegian climate. Moreover, their role now was 
a very different one from that originally envisaged. Instead of 
occupying the main Norwegian ports, with local help and acquies- 
cence, and disputing their possession against an invading enemy, 
they were now themselves in the position of being invaders, to fight 
a totally different kind of war against an enemy already in pos- 
session. 22 It was a most severe handicap and the wonder is, not that 
the campaign in Norway eventually ended in failure, but that the 
few British and French troops who were landed succeeded in making 
a fight of it for so long. 

On the morning of 9th April, when confirmation of the German 
landings was received, London was the scene of great activity. The 
three Chiefs of Staff were called early from their beds and, meeting 
at 6.0 a.m., decided that the first objectives to be secured were the 
ports of Bergen and Trondheim. At the time of their meeting it was 
not known that Narvik had also been occupied; it was thought still 
to be clear of the enemy. Two and a half hours later, at the Chiefs 
of Staffs' request, the War Cabinet met and, while confirming the 
importance of capturing Bergen and Trondheim, laid down that no 
troops were to be moved until the naval situation had become 
clearer. Later that same morning the Chiefs of Staff met for a second 
time, and by then news of the German occupation of Narvik had 
been received. But beyond ordering the move of the available 
battalions to new ports of embarkation (Scapa and the Clyde), no 
further firm decisions were reached. 

In the afternoon the Supreme War Council met and called for 
attacks on Narvik, Bergen, and Trondheim. Plans for these were 
left to the Military Co-ordination Committee, which met at 9.30 
p.m. There it was decided that small landings were to be made at 
Namsos and Aandalsnes, north and south respectively of Trond- 
heim, in order to hold the ground while the main attack was directed 
to the capture of Narvik. Thus, with the meetings of the various 
committees concerned, one vital day had been lost to the Allies and 
one vital day presented to the enemy in which to consolidate his 


gains. Not one Allied soldier was yet on the high seas en route for 
die battlefield. 

The day of the loth was similarly occupied with the making of 
plans and the briefing of the various theatre and area commanders. 
It had been hoped, and expected, that half of one battalion, designed 
for Narvik, would be able to sail from Scapa before noon on the 
nth, the second half, together with further troops from the Clyde, 
following two days later. In fact, the first half, embarked in the 
cruiser Southampton, did not clear Scapa until i.o p.m. on the i2th. 
Had they sailed on the previous day they would have reached the 
latitude of Narvik on the i3th, the day of the second battle in which 
the War spite and her nine destroyers had shattered the entire German 
naval force and whose guns now dominated the town. 

At home, in the light of the supposed strength of the German 
grip on Narvik, the military plans had stipulated landings in Vaags- 
f jord, to the north of the Vest Fjord, in which lay Narvik itself, 
After the second battle, Admiral Whitworth had signalled more 
than once 23 that in his view direct occupation of the town would be a 
relatively simple matter, but by the time this opinion had passed 
through the various channels and had been digested it was too late 
to divert the soldiers. They were already ashore near Sjovegan, on 
the northern shore of Vaagsf jord, and forty miles of deep snow lay 
between them and their objective. So was another good chance 

The small landings to hold the ground at Namsos and Aandalsnes, 
as envisaged by the Military Co-ordination Committee at its meeting 
on 9th April, were made by naval parties of seamen and marines on 
I4th April at Namsos and i7th April at Aandalsnes. Both were 
unopposed and both in due course were relieved by Regular troops 
from Britain who were to conduct the land operations for the 
capture of Trondheim. 

It was in the support and maintenance of these military operations 
that, for the next four to eight weeks, the main strength of the Navy 
was to be chiefly engaged. There were no delusions at the Admiralty 
as to what the acquisition by the enemy of these forward bases would 
mean in terms of naval endeavour. There had been British readers, 


as well as German, of Admiral Wegener's thesis on German naval 
strategy, Die Seestrategie des Wehkrieges. On the merits of Danish 
or Norwegian bases for the purpose of maintaining access with the 
oceans, Admiral "Wegener had written: "The Norwegian position 
was certainly preferable. England could then no longer maintain the 
blockade line from the Shetlands to Norway but must withdraw 
approximately to the line of the Shetlands the Faeroes Iceland. 

But this line was a net with very wide meshes Moreover [it] was 

hard for England to defend; for in the first place it lay comparatively 
near to our [new] bases, and, above all, as the map shows, we 
should considerably outflank the English strategic position to the 
north." 24 This paragraph in Admiral Wegener's book was beginning 
now to have an ominous ring of prophecy. 

Almost at once the naval, equally with the military, side of the 
campaign ran into difficulties. It was easy enough for the Navy to 
carry the Army and its supplies across the North Sea, to put it 
ashore at its appointed landing-places, and to improvise the neces- 
sary base installations. That was a traditional task, carried out with 
all the customary skill and accuracy and, moreover, without loss 
apart from one small storeship which fell victim to a U-boat's 
torpedo. Only then,, however, did the real difficulties start. From 
the captured Norwegian airfields the German aircraft operated with 
telling effect. They had, in the main, little opposition, and a frighten- 
ing foretaste of the future was the vast amount of anti-aircraft 
ammunition that had to be expended for even the smallest successes. 
The special anti-aircraft cruisers employed in the defence of these 
landing-bases the Cairo, Carlisle, and Curcyao used up practic- 
ally their entire stock of special shell in defending themselves from 
almost continuous air attack, leaving but little over for the defence 
of the bases. 

Both these main bases Namsos and Aandalsnes were quickly 
reduced to blazing wrecks by the bombers of the Luftwaffe. Any 
attempt to disembark troops and stores by daylight was tantamount 
to disaster, but by night the work went on. The cruisers and 
destroyers, both British and French, continued to bring in troops 
and stores, to put them ashore under cover of darkness, and to 


return for more. But even as the troops landed the writing was 
already on the wall. An effort to neutralise the German air supre- 
macy by the formation of a Royal Air Force fighter station ashore 
ended in catastrophe. The frozen lake at Lesjeskog was selected as a 
landing-ground and a squadron of Gladiator fighters flown off from 
the deck of H.M.S. Glorious to land there, in order to operate as 
fighter cover for the troops ashore. By the end of their first day 
only four Gladiators remained to transfer to a more distant lake; 
thirteen had to be left behind, wrecked and burned. Such an ex- 
perience signed the death warrant of the operation. 

Inevitably, evacuation of the Allied forces followed. There was 
no other answer in the face of the air threat. Earlier attempts to 
provide fighter cover from carriers had not solved the problem, 
firstly, because there were not sufficient carriers to operate their air- 
craft continuously and, secondly, because their aircraft were needed 
to provide cover for themselves and the other naval forces operating 
in the area. Much, probably far too much, had been hoped for from 
the Gladiators at Lesjeskog, but they had proved, in spite of great 
efforts and great gallantry, a broken reed. At their meeting on the 
morning of z6th April the Military Co-ordination Committee 
decided that there was no alternative but to evacuate central Nor- 
way. It was the only possible decision that could be made. 

Once more the Allied navies came in force into the derelict har- 
bours of Namsos and Aandalsnes, this time to bring away the men 
they had landed there ten days or so earlier. The operations were 
planned for the nights of 3oth April and ist May at Aandalsnes, 
and ist and 2nd May at Namsos. But before those operations 
took place there appeared, for the Norwegian nation, an even 
unhappier omen. In the darkness of late evening of 2yth April, 
H.M.S. Glasgow and two destroyers arrived at Molde. There they 
embarked the King of Norway and the Crown Prince, members of 
the Norwegian Government, and the Bank of Norway's gold reserve. 
Sadly they left the southern half of their stricken country for a safer 
haven in the far north. It was the first, bitter taste of defeat. 

The evacuations at Aandalsnes and Namsos were carried out with 
skill, speed, and precision. There were some fears at first of the 


outcome at Aandalsnes, for on the night of the 29th the port was, 
for the first time, bombed throughout the dark hours and evacuation 
was, of course, possible only at night. It was a risk, however, that had 
to be accepted, and at 10.30 p.m. on the night of 30th April, Vice- 
Admiral Sir Frederick Edward-Collins entered the port with the 
cruisers Galatea, Arethusa, Sheffield, and Southampton, six destroy- 
ers, and one transport. Nearly 2,200 men, a little less than half the 
total military force, were embarked and the ships were dear of the 
fjord before the sun rose the next morning. On the following night 
the same task fell to Vice-Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton, with the 
cruisers Manchester and Birmingham, five destroyers, the sloop 
Auckland, and the anti-aircraft cruiser Calcutta. They entered 
Aandalsnes at n p.m., the destroyers going alongside the quay and 
ferrying out the men to the cruisers, which sailed as soon as they 
were full. When all but the rearguard were embarked the force 
sailed for home, leaving the Auckland and Calcutta to take on board 
the last 200 men who had guarded the retreat. Instead of the 200 ex- 
pected, over 700 men turned up. The remaining darkness was to be 
counted in minutes now, instead of hours, but with the aid of naval 
shore parties the tired men were safely brought on board in fifteen 
minutes and the two ships sailed, to reach the open sea unmolested. 
Every man was accounted for and not a single casualty incurred in 
this hazardous operation. 

At Namsos the risks were even greater. It was unlikely that all 
knowledge of the withdrawal could be completely denied to the 
enemy; it was equally certain that when he realised what was hap- 
pening he would dispute it to the utmost of his power. There were 
5,400 troops ashore in the Namsos area, and to Vice-Admiral J. H. D. 
Cunningham, in command of the naval force, it appeared essential 
to complete the evacuation in one night instead of two, as 
originally planned. General Carton de Wiart, in command ashore, 
declared this to be impossible; nonetheless Admiral Cunningham 
was determined to attempt it. 

On the night of ist May his ships, the British cruisers Devonshire 
and York and the French cruiser Montcalm, with nine destroyers 
and three transports, approached the Norwegian coast only to find 


extensive fog patches which prevented the entry of the larger ships 
into pilotage waters. Some of the destroyers, under Captain Lord 
Louis Mountbatten and on his suggestion, managed to grope their 
way in, to find the fjord clear. Admiral Cunningham then sent 
Captain P. L. Vian, in the destroyer Afri&> to lead the transports in 
through the fog. H.M.S. York and the destroyer Nubian followed. 

Embarkation proceeded apace. Two of the transports secured 
alongside the quay and were quickly filled, while the destroyers 
ferried other parties to the York and the third transport lying out in 
the small harbour. As the hours of darkness shortened, so too did 
the long lines of men ashore awaiting embarkation. Early in the 
morning, while it was still dark, the first group of ships sailed with 
the greater portion of the troops. They reached Scapa undetected by 
the enemy. Later, as the first tinges of dawn were beginning to light 
the eastern sky, the rest of the ships sailed, and in them they carried 
the whole of the remaining soldiers. As at Aandalsnes, all were 
accounted for. 

It was then that the fog off shore, which had earlier held up the 
larger ships off Namsos, could have proved its value. Alas, it had 
lifted and the sky was clear. Enemy bombers soon discovered the 
second group of ships as they steamed across the North Sea and 
their attacks were continuous. They hit and sank the Afridi and the 
French destroyer Bison. In the latter was embarked a small part 
of the Namsos rearguard, and they were the only losses suffered 
by the Army. 

There remains to be recorded one comment on the conduct of 
this operation. It comes from General Carton de Wiart, commanding 
ashore at Namsos. "In the course of that last, endless day," he wrote, 
"I got a message from the Navy to say that they would evacuate the 
whole of my force that night. I thought it was impossible, but 
learned a few hours later that the Navy do not know the word." 26 

Narvik remained. The first landing, it will be remembered, had 
been made in Vaagsfjord on i4th April. In command ashore was 
Major-General Mackesy, afloat was Admiral of the Fleet Lord Cork 
and Orrery with the title of Flag Officer, Narvik. When the two 
met at Harstad, which had been selected as the main base for the 


operations, they discovered that they had received totally different 
instructions and consequently held "diametrically opposed views".* 
General Mackesy maintained that his force was not ready yet for 
fighting, that its stores required sorting before it could move, that 
it must await the arrival of its artillery before it could undertake any 
active operations. Lord Cork, vitally alive to the implications of the 
second battle of Narvik fought the previous day and also to Admiral 
Whitworth's signal which had stated: "I am convinced that Narvik 
can be taken by direct assault now without fear of meeting serious 
opposition on landing*', wanted an immediate assault on the town. 
The General, however, was adamant and the fleeting chance of an 
important success, if chance it were, was missed. Lord Cork was 
appointed in supreme command of the expedition on ooth April, but 
by that date the morale of the Germans in Narvik had recovered 
after its severe drop following the two naval battles. 

The military build-up in the Narvik area was slow at first, but 
gained momentum after the evacuations farther south. By the first 
week in May the concentration was complete and Lord Cork 
proposed to attack the town on the 8th. The operation, however, 
was postponed, and instead a landing was made at Bjerkvik, at the 
top of Herjangs Fjord. Covered by aircraft from H.M.S. Ark Royal, 
it was completely successful. 

There was, nevertheless, still the problem of the attack from the 
air. Successes ashore could be maintained only under an air cover 
sufficiently incisive to discourage the German bombers, which were 
by now beginning to arrive in the area in increasing numbers. 
Airfields ashore had been laboriously prepared for the Royal Air 
Force, and after the Bjerkvik operation the Ark Royal was sent 
home to ferry across Royal Air Force Hurricanes. Her departure 
from the area coincided with a steep rise in German air attacks on 
the ships supporting the shore operations, and losses began to 
mount alarmingly, culminating in the sinking of H.M.S. Curlew, 
one of the special anti-aircraft cruisers whose value was becoming 
increasingly apparent. 

By the end of the third week in May the first of the Royal Air 
Force fighters Hurricanes and Gladiators were flown off from 


the Furious and Glorious and landed safely on their airfields. The 
assault on Narvik could now go forward assured at last of adequate 
fighter protection from the enemy bombers. But already it was too 
late. Across France were pounding the German armoured divisions, 
making for the Channel ports, and for the first time for 140 years 
there was serious talk of an invasion of Britain. In the threat of that 
danger the occupation of Narvik was no longer practical politics. 

On 24th May the War Cabinet, under the shadow of the grave 
news from the French battlefield, decided on the total evacuation of 
Norway. The orders reached the naval and military commanders, 
Admiral of the Fleet Lord Cork and Lieutenant-General Auchin- 
leck, who had by then superseded General Mackesy, on the 26th, 
but were later modified to include the striking of one last blow at 
the enemy in Norway. Narvik was to be captured before the final 
evacuation to permit destruction of the railway and the harbour 
facilities for loading ore. Its capture presented no difficulties. By the 
morning of the 28th the town was in Allied hands and demolition 
work was in progress. Unfortunately, the R.A.F. fighter airfield was 
fogbound and the consequent lack of air cover enabled the enemy 
bombers to operate unopposed. H.M.S. Cairo, yet another of our 
valuable anti-aircraft cruisers, was hit and damaged. 

There remained but one final act in this unhappy campaign. This 
was the last, and also the largest, of the evacuations. Some 25,000 
troops were ashore in the area and their safe removal was something 
of a major operation. There had, so far, been little or no German 
naval reaction at sea to the whole of the Allied campaign in North 
Sea waters and, so far as was known, no enemy units were at sea to 
dispute this final withdrawal. Yet Admiral Forbes, correctly as it 
turned out, was not satisfied over this apparent quiescence on the 
part of the German Navy, and sent H.M.S. Valiant and four 
destroyers from the Home Fleet to cover the homecoming convoys. 
It was as well that he did, for the enemy had planned an operation ' 
to harass the naval forces in the Harstad area, though without 
knowledge, of course, of the evacuation plans. 

The evacuation itself was covered by naval aircraft from the 
Ark Royal and Glorious, whose duty, after the completion of that 


task, was to embark the shore-based fighters and bring them home. 
For five nights the soldiers were ferried out to the troopships, which 
sailed for home in two groups. Both arrived in the Clyde in safety, 
a total of 25,000 men brought home without loss. Most of their 
stores and all their transport had to be left behind, and it is, perhaps, 
an example of the hurried planning for the whole campaign that die 
trucks for one of the first battalions to land at Harstad were received 
on the day of their final embarkation, just in time to be pushed, 
unused, into the sea. It could hardly be called planning at its best. 

The Ark Royal, after embarking her quota of shore-based aircraft, 
sailed for home in the last convoy. The Glorious., with two escorting 
destroyers, had been ordered to proceed independently because of 
shortage of fuel. She had, on the morning of the 8th, received her 
complement of shore-based fighters, who had landed on in most 
spirited and gallant fashion. With no arrester hooks, and with no 
former experience of deck landings, the Royal Air Force pilots had 
flown their Hurricanes out to sea to attempt this difficult task with 
no additional braking device beyond semi-deflated tyres on their 
landing wheels. Each landing on was successful beyond all hopes, 
and the carrier, escorted by the Acasta and Ardent^ set course for 

Their passage across the North Sea synchronised with the 
harassing operations planned by the enemy. Up towards the north 
steamed the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Hipper^ and four destroyers^ 
with the intention of a raid into the waters round Harstad. On his 
way north Admiral Marschall, in command of the German force, 
began to receive reports from shore-based reconnaissance aircraft. 
On the evening of the yth an Allied convoy was reported off Ajrd 
Fjord; a few minutes later there was another sighting from the air, 
reporting two carriers about forty-five miles north of Andenes. 27 
From these two reports Admiral Marschall correctly assumed that 
an evacuation was taking place and abandoned his previous orders, 
steering to intercept. Early in the morning of the 8th he ran into his 
first victims, a small group of ships homeward bound and comprising 
a tanker, an empty transport, a hospital ship, and an escorting 
trawler. Only the hospital ship was allowed to proceed; the other 


three were sunk. Then, detaching the Hipper and the destroyers to 
Trondheim, Admiral Marschall took his two big ships up into the 
northern wastes of the North Sea in search of bigger prey. 

During the afternoon of the 8th smoke was sighted from the 
Scharnhorst'^ foretop. The two battle-cruisers closed to investigate, 
and soon recognised the unwieldy bulk of an aircraft carrier. She was 
the Glorious, and a few minutes later the first n-inch shells struck 
her, wrecking her hangars and setting her on fire. Strenuous efforts 
were made to get her Swordfish aircraft up on deck, armed with 
torpedoes, and into the air, but it had been left too late and not 
one was able to take off. 

It was left to the Ardent and Acasta to make what defence was 
possible. And gloriously they did it in the very finest tradition of 
their Service. Laying a smoke screen to protect the Glorious from 
the worst of the gunfire, both sped at their maximum speed towards 
their giant adversaries. Lieutenant-Commander J. F. Barker, of the 
Ardent, as he narrowed the gap between himself and the enemy, 
turned on to a parallel course and fired a full salvo of torpedoes. 
The Ardent was overwhelmed by gunfire and sank a minute or 
two later. 

Commander C. E. Glasfurd, in the Acasta, making use of the 
covering smoke-screen, carried on the battle* She was alone now, 
for the Glorious, badly holed by the plunging fire of the two German 
battle-cruisers, had rolled over and sunk. As the Acasta came out of 
the smoke for her attack she was hit again and again, but with all 
her guns firing she continued to close the enemy. Finally, low in the 
water now and near her end, she too turned and fired her torpedoes. 
One of them hit the Scharnhorst aft, damaging her starboard 
propeller shaft and flooding an engine room and the after-turret 
magazine. A shell from one of her guns hit one of the forward 
turrets, but was too small to do any damage. Then, having struck 
her blow, the Acasta, too, met her end in the concentrated gunfire 
of the two German ships. She had done even better than she knew, 
for without her torpedo hits the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau would 
almost certainly have fallen in with Lord Cork's main convoy. 

This final act in the ill-fated campaign was all the more tragic in 


that it was largely unnecessary. Three separate precautionary moves 
might have saved the Glorious. Captain d'Oyley-Hughes, command- 
ing the carrier, considered that the only danger he had to face was 
from U-boats, and that his speed and that of his escorts was a 
sufficient defence. All the ship's Swordfish were therefore down 
below in the hangar. Had they been on deck, and air patrols flown 
from the ship, the Glorious would have had sufficient warning of the 
enemy's presence possibly to keep clear of their track. 

A second precautionary move would have been for Coastal 
Command to send out reconnaissance flights over the area during 
the period covering the return of these convoys from northern 
Norway. These, too, could have given adequate warning of the 
approaching German ships. But such was the degree of secrecy 
covering these homeward-bound convoys from Norway that 
Coastal Command had never been officially informed of them. 

Finally, there was the Home Fleet, and it may be asked why it 
was not out in force to cover these valuable convoys. The answer 
lay in part in the invasion "scare", for Admiral Forbes had been 
ordered by the First Sea Lord to keep two heavy ships at Scapa in 
case invasion should become a reality. Admiral Forbes had, as has 
been recorded, sent out the Valiant and four destroyers to cover the 
first group of the returning transports. The second and final group 
provided its own escort in the shape of the two cruisers, Southampton 
and Coventry ', and the five destroyers which had been operating in 
Norwegian waters. Later this group was joined by the Ark Royal 
and her escorting destroyers. Unfortunately, on 5th June, a "Q- 
ship" had reported sighting two unknown ships, possibly raiders, 
north-east of the Faeroes, and Admiral Forbes had despatched a 
strong force, including the batde-cruisers Repulse and Renown, to 
intercept them. The report, however, was a false one and, too late, 
the Repulse and her fellow-ships were ordered to join the home- 
coming convoy. Too late, too, the Rodney raised steam and sailed 
from Scapa, but by then the damage had been done. She had been 
one of the two heavy ships retained at Scapa on the First Sea Lord's 

Yet it was not all on the one side of the balance* Grievous as was 


the loss of the Glorious and her valuable crew the more so since so 
many of them were trained pilots, both of the Royal Air Force and 
the Fleet Air Arm there had been the severe damage caused to the 
Scharnhorst by the Acastas torpedo. And there was more to come. 
Back in Norwegian waters lay the British submarine Clyde. On the 
night of 20th June she sighted a darkened ship and, in spite of heavy 
weather, managed to hit her with one torpedo. It was the Gneisenau^ 
and the Clyde's success put her out of action for another six months. 

There was, too, one other aspect of the campaign which, if not 
belonging strictly to the profit side, yet gave promise of better 
things to come. In spite of every drawback, of conflicting orders, of 
shortage of equipment, of serious reverses that ended in defeat, and 
of continuous and paralysing attack from the air, the morale of the 
men of all three Services remained proud and high. In the Navy the 
exemplary courage of its young men, of its destroyer captains and 
crews who died gloriously against great odds, of its pilots and 
observers whose "honour and courage remained throughout as 
dazzling as the snow-covered mountains over which they so tri- 
umphantly flew", 28 stands out as a splendid example of traditional 
naval gallantry. 

The whole of the Norwegian coast was now in German hands. 
Its fine harbours, its airfields, its favourable geographical position, 
could now all be used in the battle against Britain. Admiral Wege- 
ner's prophecy had come to pass and his words, "we should con- 
siderably outflank the English strategic position to the north*', 29 
were now a concrete fact. The sea ring round Germany, held by the 
Allied command of the oceans, had been pierced. 

Re-establishment, in the face of German shore-based air power, 
was impossible. The operations so recently concluded had proved 
that navies, no matter how overwhelmingly strong on the surface 
of the sea, could not live with the air above them dominated by the 
enemy. The carrier strength of the Navy, insufficient for its needs 
even at the start of the war, had been still further reduced by the 
losses of the Courageous and the Glorious, and there was no hope of 
providing the necessary air superiority in the North Sea through 
that means. One answer alone was possible, to hold the enemy 


farther out and to re-establish the sea blockade on a new line. It was 
to make the task infinitely more difficult, yet no possible alternative 
presented itself. 

The German occupation of Denmark had, in fact, facilitated the 
necessary operations. To the north and north-west of Britain lay 
Danish possessions in the shape of the Faeroe Islands and Iceland, 
and in the German invasion of their motherland had kin the excuse 
for British occupation. Small British forces were already ashore in 
both places securing them against German attack. With their 
occupation the sea ring round Germany was once more held. But, 
as Admiral Wegener had said eleven years earlier, "this line was a 
net with very wide meshes. . . . Moreover, it was hard for England 
to defend." 


Chapter 3 


IF the result of the Norwegian campaign had been a strategical 
calamity, worse was to follow hard upon its heels. Even as the 
decision to evacuate Norway was taken by the War Cabinet on 
24th May, urgent orders were sent to the Home Fleet to detach 
cruisers and destroyers to the Channel. The course of the war in 
north-west Europe was even at that early stage beginning to take 
an ugly turn. 

The German attack in the west had been launched on loth May, 
1940, and almost at once the defence had begun to crumble with a 
speed that became progressively more alarming. The main enemy 
thrust through the Ardennes Forest struck at the "hinge'* of the 
Maginot Line near Sedan and, bursting through, swept onwards to 
the north-west. At a single bound, as it were, this great armoured 
Maginot Line, constructed through the years with so much effort 
and at the cost of such vast treasure, was outflanked. It was to fall 
a few days later, with its great guns silent and unused, its vast 
accumulation of stores and ammunition unexpended and useless. 

The German divisions swept onward. On 24th May Boulogne 
fell, and two days later Calais succumbed after a valiant stand. One 
by one the Channel and Biscay ports were to fall to the enemy as 
the westward sweep continued: Le Havre, Cherbourg, St. Malo, 
Brest, St, Nazaire, La Pallice; until by 25th June the German grip 
extended as far south and west as Bordeaux. All through the smiling 
French countryside, basking in the summer sunshine of a warm and 


benign June, "the echo of musketry and the beat of marching boots" 
proclaimed the defeat of a nation. Great Britain, shorn of the sup- 
port of an ally, faced a situation as desperate as any in all her long 

It was in this swift reversal of fortune, a short six weeks of dra- 
matic tragedy, that command of the sea once more revealed its 
incalculable power, and also its influence on the land battles fought 
far from its shores. Sea power had landed the armies unscathed on 
the European battlefield; it was now to withdraw them again to 
the haven of their homeland. Sea power, too, was to hold inviolate 
the narrow waters which still made Britain an island, to deny to a 
victorious enemy the final prize which hung, so tantalisingly, almost 
within his grasp. To the Navy, as to all the citizens of Britain, was 
to dawn its "finest hour". 

Seven days before the Germans launched their attacks on Hol- 
land, Belgium, and France, the Admiralty had begun to concentrate 
ships in the southern ports of Britain. It was not foreknowledge of 
the coming event which dictated these moves so much as an intel- 
ligent supposition that some such attack must come soon, combined 
with anxiety for the fate of Holland and Belgium when the 
expected blow should fall. Both these countries had refused to enter 
into any staff talks with the Western Allies in advance of a German 
onslaught, and when that onslaught came the opportunity to co- 
ordinate any plan of defence had passed beyond recall. 

On 3rd May two cruisers, the Galatea and Arethusa, were 
ordered down from Rosyth to augment the Nore Command, 1 and 
four days later the Commander-in-Chief was ordered to detach a 
cruiser (H.M.S. Birmingham) and eight modern destroyers from 
the Home Fleet to concentrate at Harwich. 2 These were to be ready 
for immediate operations in aid of the Low Countries should the 
need arise. 

It was at this anxious time, with the naval forces of Britain con- 
centrating for what was to develop into one of the fiercest battles of 
the war, that the Admiralty lost its dynamic First Lord. On 8th 
May, after a two-day debate in the House of Commons, an adverse 
vote indicated that confidence in Mr. Chamberlain's leadership had 

waned. On loth May he tendered his resignation, and Mr. Winston 
Churchill left Admiralty House to take up a new residence at 10 
Downing Street as the nation's chosen war leader. And two days 
later, on 12th May, the Admiralty opened its doors to Mr. A. V. 
Alexander as the new First Lord, to reoccupy the chair in which he 
had last sat in 1931. 

As the enemy struck westwards in the small hours of loth May, 
naval forces were already at sea. H.M.S. Kelly^ a destroyer leader, 
had been torpedoed in the North Sea by a German motor torpedo- 
boat on the 9th and in the force covering her withdrawal was H.M.S. 
Birmingham. She was at once ordered to Terschelling at full speed 
. to render such help to the hard-pressed Dutch as was possible. Four 
destroyers the Wild Swan, Wivern^ Hyperion^ and Havock were 
sent to Waalhaven, where it was reported that the airfield had been 
captured by 1,200 German soldiers in Dutch uniforms, and a Royal 
Marine force of 200 men was sent in the destroyers Verity and 
Venomous to the Hook. Other ships followed as quickly as they 
could be got ready for sea. 

Eager and swift as was the help offered by the Navy to the hapless 
Dutch, it came too late to affect the issue in Holland. The speed of 
the German land advance and the overwhelming weight of the 
attack from the air broke the back of Dutch resistance with almost 
unbelievable swiftness, and long before more substantial British aid 
could arrive across the sea. On ijth May, just five days from the 
first crossing of the frontier by German troops, the Dutch nation 
laid down its arms in total surrender. 

The naval aid, tendered with such speed, was thus forced to 
become instead a means of evacuation. To augment the ships already 
diverted to Dutch waters the Admiralty ordered others, cruisers and 
destroyers, to assist in the removal of Dutch officials and British 
refugees. Some thousands were thus brought to safety, and at the 
same time landing-parties from the ships went ashore to carry out 
demolition work on the coast defences, power stations, dock gates, 
oil storage tanks, and other installations which might be of value to 
the enemy. H.M.S. Codrington brought Princess Juliana and her 
children to Britain on i2th May, and the Queen of the Netherlands, 


evading an attack by German parachute troops designed expressly 
to capture her, embarked in H.M.S. fferewardon the I3th and was 
brought safely to Harwich. By midnight on I4th May all further 
evacuation from Holland ceased, the Dutch Army having capitu- 
lated, and those who had, perforce, to be left behind were told to 
try to make their way towards Belgian ports where the Navy would 
attempt to continue the work of rescue. 

On i4th May a new hint of danger was in the air. At their meeting 
on that day the Chiefs of Staff received a note from the War Cabinet 
to the effect that the French Prime Minister had telephoned to Mr. 
Churchill stating that the Germans had crossed the River Meuse and 
broken through south, of Sedan. As a result the First Sea Lord 
signalled to Admiral Forbes at Scapa that the danger of an invasion 
of Britain was "very real". The Commander-in-Chief, however, 
refuted the suggestion and backed up his opinion with powerful 
arguments. As a sailor he knew well that a successful invasion would 
have to be preceded by the defeat of the Navy, and the Navy was 
still a very long way from defeat. 

At their meeting on the following day, the Chiefs of Staff were 
told, again by M. Reynaud, "that the battle was lost and the road to 
Paris open". 3 Thoughts and fears that France might prove to be an 
unstable partner in the Western Alliance, hitherto vague and un- 
certain, now began to assume substance and reality, and the Chiefs 
of Staff devoted their collective wisdom to the formulation of a 
strategy designed for a Britain fighting alone. 

As the battle in northern France progressed, a possibility even 
more urgent and more immediate than a consideration of strategy 
emerged from the growing tale of disaster. On the evening of 2Oth 
May German armoured forces reached Abbeville, and the British 
Expeditionary Force's main lines of communication with its home 
base were cut. Three or four days later the subsidiary lines, too, 
were cut by the loss of the Channel ports, and the Army was faced 
either with a large-scale and largely improvised withdrawal through 
inadequate ports or with surrender. One thing alone could decide 
their fate. It lay in the ability or otherwise of the Navy to hold the 
French inshore waters long enough to make a withdrawal possible 


and, though to a lesser extent, the ability of the Royal Air Force to 
hold the skies above the beaches. On those alone depended the life 
or death of the B.E.F. 

On 20th May the first meeting was held of those who were to 
direct what later was to become known as Operation "Dynamo". 
So little of the true military situation in France was known in 
London at that date that, even though this initial meeting was held 
in the War Office, the possibility of a "hazardous evacuation of very 
large forces" was considered as "unlikely". 4 But on the following 
day, at Dover, the necessity was already looming larger and the first 
definite orders were issued, including one to concentrate in south 
coast waters as many personnel ships and small craft as could be 
made available. 6 Steps were taken at the same time to integrate the 
operations of Fighter and Coastal Command squadrons with 
the overall plan of the Flag Officer Dover, Vice-Admiral B. H. 
Ramsay. Five Fleet Air Arm squadrons were also placed under the 
operational control of Coastal Command in order to augment the 
available numbers. 

By 22nd May the preliminary plans were complete. The Admiralty 
had been assiduous in the collection of available small craft for the 
operation, in equipping them with the necessary gear and instru- 
ments, and in the provision of naval crews where possible. All 
these preliminary steps were co-ordinated by the Vice-Admiral 
Dover, and at 7.44 p.m. on that day a signal from the Admiralty 
informed all the authorities concerned that "the operation for which 
these ships are being prepared will be known as Dynamo". 6 It was 
the first mention of a name that was later to become famous all over 
the world. 

But before the evacuation of the B.E.F. was to start from Dunkirk 
and its neighbouring beaches there was a smaller operation at 
Boulogne which gave some foretaste of the difficulties in store in the 
major withdrawal. Early on the 23rd a naval demolition party under 
Lieutenant-Commander A. E. P. Welman was landed from the 
destroyer Vimy, together with a force of seamen and marines to 
cover the demolitions. They were given the somewhat unwarlike 
name of "Force Buttercup". 


On their arrival they found the town under attack by tanks and 
infantry and also subjected to observed shellfire. Two battalions of 
the Irish Guards, the Welsh Guards, and other troops were still 
fighting a desperate rearguard action for the town, but by mid- 
afternoon almost the whole of Boulogne, except for a small bridge- 
head round the harbour area, was in the hands of the enemy. The 
destroyers Keith and Whitshed arrived in the early evening to carry 
out the evacuation as soon as the demolitions were completed, and 
they were subjected to a heavy air attack as well as to close-range 
mortar, machine-gun, and rifle fire which caused some damage and 
casualties, including Captain D. J. R. Simson of the Keith (D.i9) ? 
who was killed. The destroyers, which were at the time evacuating 
wounded, were forced to leave harbour with their task uncompleted, 
but an hour and a half later were both back and continuing the work 
of rescue. They were joined later by the Veneda^ Venomous^ Vimiera^ 
Wild Swan, and Windsor to assist with the evacuation of British and 
French soldiers. While the last of the demolition charges were being 
placed and fired, German tanks towing field guns appeared over the 
brow of the hill before the harbour and opened a heavy fire. The 
destroyers replied in a close-range action described by eye-witnesses 
ashore as "magnificent", and even as they fought back the work of 
embarkation went on undeterred by the falling shells. The Vmena 
was hit while she was in the narrow entrance channel, but she was 
swiftly brought under control and emerged safely. The Venomous 
had her rudder jammed while she steamed astern down the Channel, 
but steering with her engines, reached the open sea. The WildS-wan^ 
following her out, grounded momentarily in the harbour, but got off 
and she, too, reached safety. 

With all the destroyers loaded and gone, there still remained an 
estimated 1,000 troops in Boulogne. Admiral Ramsay therefore sent 
the Vtmiera back for a second trip to the beleaguered port. She 
entered in darkness, to find all silent in the port area. After hailing 
the shore many times, her Commanding Officer received an answer 
and, going alongside the jetty, found not 1,000 but over 1,400 troops 
still awaiting evacuation. For an hour she lay there, the soldiers 
crowding aboard until only a small space around the guns had been 


left clear. As she slipped anchor and proceeded she was attacked 
from the air, one bomb exploding no more than twenty yards 
away. She reached Dover and landed over 1,400 men, to bring 
the total evacuated from Boulogne up to 4,500. 

The Keith) Venetia, Venomous, WTdtshed, and Wild Swan were 
all damaged in this small operation, and the naval casualties 
amounted to eighty-three officers and men. It was a taste, and not 
too palatable a one, of what the major operation at Dunkirk might 

By Sunday, 26th May, all hopes of a military counter-attack 
southwards, to link up the B.E.F. once more with the main French 
armies around the Maginot Line, had faded. One hope alone 
remained now, retirement to the coast and the establishment of a 
defensive perimeter while some, at any rate, of the troops ashore 
were withdrawn by sea. Lord Gort, in command of the B.E.F., 
telegraphed to the Secretary of State for War on the implications 
of this decision and wrote: "I must not conceal from you that a 
great part of the B.E.F. and its equipment will inevitably be lost, 
even in best circumstances." 7 

In the afternoon of that same Sunday the Admiralty, in the 
knowledge that withdrawal was now imminent, informed Vice- 
Admiral Ramsay that "it was imperative for 'Dynamo* to be imple- 
mented with the greatest vigour, with a view to lifting up to 45,000 
of the B.E.F. within two days". And four hours later there went 
out from the Admiralty the historic signal, "Operation Dynamo is 
to commence". 8 It was three minutes before 7.0 p.m. Thirty-three 
minutes later the destroyer Wolsey left Dover to act as wireless link 
ship between the Admiral's office at Dover and the naval beach 
parties ashore at Dunkirk. And at 9.15 p.m. the armed boarding 
vessel Monas Isle sailed from the Downs, the first of an armada of 
miscellaneous. small ships which were to snatch an army from the 
encircling grip of the enemy. In spite of a fouled propeller in Dun- 
kirk Harbour, near misses from shore-based enemy guns, and a 
machine-gun attack from the air which caused eighty-three casual- 
ties, the Monas Isle reached Dover at noon on the 2yth and dis- 
embarked 1,420 troops. It was a hopeful start. 


Of the eight days of endeavour, which is now known universally 
by the all-embracing name of "Dunkirk", it is not possible to write 
in detail, for the number of ships which eventually made their way 
to those historic beaches is almost legion. The main problem which 
faced the Navy when the operation began was a twofold one: first, 
how best to use a port that was already heavily damaged and under 
almost constant attack from the air, and second, how to lift men off 
the ten miles of beaches which lay to the east of the town and to 
which no ship of any size could approach nearer than half a mile. 
As viewed from Admiral Ramsay's headquarters at Dover, these 
problems could only be solved by a combination of three factors: 
the local decisions of naval officers in charge ashore in the main 
embarkation areas as to the best use to which available ships and 
boats could be put, the ability of the Royal Air Force to provide 
some degree of protection from air attack for the ships engaged, and 
the orderly discipline of the men awaiting embarkation. And even 
given all three it was thought at Dover that the Admiralty's target 
figure of 45,000 men was unduly optimistic. 

The experiences of the first full day of evacuation, 28th May, 
were not particularly hopeful, though they contained one usefiil 
lesson. Of the total of 17,804 men brought home, nearly 12,000 had 
been embarked from a single damaged breakwater in Dunkirk 
harbour, and only some 6,000 from the ten miles of beach which 
lay to the eastward of the town. It was at once apparent that the 
oaain volume of the evacuation must come through the port, with 
the beaches playing a subsidiary, though still extremely valuable, 
part. During the 29th the naval build-up of ships increased con- 
siderably as more destroyers, sloops, minesweepers, and patrol craft 
reached the Dover area from more distant stations. And at the same 
time the Admiralty cast their net far and wide for small boats to swll 
the numbers taken off the beaches. As a result of the increase in the 
number of ships, the day's total reached the satisfactory figure of 
47,310, which might have been even larger had not false reports 
reached Dover in the evening that the harbour entrance at Dunkirk 
was blocked. As a result, ships were diverted to the beaches and a 
good opportunity was lost* 


The total figures for the day, good as they undoubtedly were, 
had been achieved only at the cost of severe loss in the ships involved. 
German E-boats, lying off the shipping routes, had sunk two de- 
stroyers, the Grafton and Wakeful, and two more, the Montrose and 
Mackay, had been in collision and were badly damaged. A magnetic 
mine, of which large numbers were being laid by the enemy in the 
shallow waters around Dunkirk, had exploded under the personnel 
ship Monas Queen, sinking her in less than two minutes. But worse 
losses still had come from the repeated enemy attacks from the air. 
Ships sunk by bombing attacks were the destroyer Grenade, the 
personnel ships Normannia, Lorina, and Fenella, the merchant ship 
Clan Macalister, the boarding vessel King Orry, and the special 
service vessel Crested Eagle, together with many small craft. And 
among the large number damaged by air attack were the destroyers 
Gallant, Jaguar, Greyhound, Intrepid, and Saladin, the sloop Bide- 
ford, and the personnel ship Canterbury. 

For the next three days Operation "Dynamo" continued to run 
at full power, and the figures of men lifted from the port and the 
beaches reached impressive totals: 53,823 on 3Oth May, 68,014 on 
the 3 ist, and 64,429 on ist June. On each of those three days it was 
the destroyers which brought home the bulk of the men, their great 
speed enabling them to cut many hours off the average time taken 
on a round trip. Losses, as on the 29th, were still grievously heavy, 
but the urgency of the problem, its importance to the whole future 
of the war, and, above all, the natural reluctance of one Service to 
let another one down, permitted a scale of losses to be accepted that 
might, in less vital circumstances, have caused an abandonment of 
the whole operation. 

By midnight on ist June the major part of the British Expedition- 
ary Force was home, though as yet the operation was by no means 
concluded. Substantial numbers still remained, swelled daily by 
French and Belgian soldiers converging into the ever-narrowing 
bridgehead held around Dunkirk. On 2nd and 3rd June the great 
majority of men were embarked over the harbour jetty, the beaches 
contributing only 6,695 and 1,870 on the two days respectively. It 
was a measure of the contracting perimeter around Dunkirk, with 


all that it meant to the ships in the increased numbers of shore- 
based guns which the enemy could bring to bear. 

By 3rd June the destroyer crews were approaching a state of 
exhaustion. With their speed, their endurance, and their guns to 
provide for themselves a measure of defence against attack, they 
were the best type of ship to use for the purpose, and naturally they 
were used to the utmost. One spare destroyer crew had been mus- 
tered at Dover to provide temporary reliefs and a chance of some 
rest to the exhausted men, but one spare crew among the forty-one 
destroyers engaged was not sufficient to give to them all the few 
hours of physical recuperation they needed. The normal exhaustion 
expected from prolonged operations was accelerated both by the 
additional hazards of the operation the bombing attacks of un- 
precedented violence, the constant working in mined waters, the 
embarkation of troops in conditions of great difficulty and danger, 
the rescue of men from the sea often in a state of unbelievable 
physical distress, and the evidence of major defeat that surrounded 
the scene and also by the fact that their ships were always so 
crowded with soldiers that even in their normal living spaces there 
was no room for them to lie down. 

The last five destroyers to enter Dunkirk on the night of 2nd/3rd 
June returned to Dover almost empty. The reason was not, as 
Admiral Ramsay first thought, that all the available troops had been 
brought back, though it was true so far as British soldiers were 
concerned. There were many French troops still to come, but 
they had failed to make their appearance as originally arranged. 
This was not, in fact, the fault of the French, for they had 
had to mount a counter-attack to hold the perimeter east of 

Admiral Ramsay's belief that the operation was over, and far 
more successfully completed than anyone had dared to hope, was 
shattered by a signal from the Admiralty that evacuation from 
Dunkirk was to continue over the night 3rd/4th June. This led the 
Admiral to bring to the notice of the Admiralty the conditions of 
strain under which his ships' crews were working and to press that 
this extra night of evacuation should be the last, at least so far as the 


Dover forces were concerned. His signal, which was sent during the 
afternoon of the 3rd, read: 

"After nine days of operations of a nature unprecedented in naval 
warfare, which followed on two weeks of intense strain, commanding 
officers, officers, and ships' companies are at the end of their 

"I therefore view a continuance of the demands made by evacua- 
tion with the utmost concern as likely to strain to breaking-point 
the endurance of officers and men. 

"I should fail in my duty did I not represent to Their Lordships 
the existence of this state of affairs in the ships under my command, 
and I consider it would be unfortunate, after the magnificent 
manner in which officers and men of the surviving ships have faced 
heavy loss and responded to every call made upon them, that they 
should be subjected to a test which I feel may be beyond the limit 
of human endurance. 

"If therefore evacuation has to be continued after tonight I would 
emphasise in the strongest possible manner that fresh forces should 
be used for these operations, and any consequent delay in their 
execution should be accepted." 9 

But the Admiral knew that he could count on his ships' com- 
panies for this one last effort. In a signal to all the ships concerned 
he said: 

"I hoped and believed that last night would see us through, but 
the French, who were covering the retirement of the British rear- 
guard, had to repel a strong German attack and so were unable to 
send their troops to the pier in time to be embarked. 

"We cannot leave our Allies in the lurch and I must call on all 
officers and men detailed for further evacuation tonight to let the 
world see that we never let down our Ally." 

Admiral Ramsay did not call in vain. During the afternoon he 
learned that the estimated figure of those still awaiting evacuation 
was about 30,000, a total that was almost exactly the full lifting 
capacity of all his available ships, though to get them all on board 
during the hours of darkness would call for organisation ashore of 
a very high order. A number of French officers and ratings were 


added to the British pier parties in order to speed up the embarkation 
on the other side. 

Of the forty-one destroyers which Admiral Ramsay had had under 
his command during the withdrawal, only nine now remained. It 
was, of course, these destroyers which would form the spearpoint of 
the night's evacuation, in spite of the fact that they, alone of all the 
ships engaged, had been employed on this work without a break 
from the start. With them went nine personnel ships, eleven mine- 
sweepers, and such other smaller ships and boats as could con- 
veniently make the crossing in the time available. At the last moment 
Admiral Ramsay's plans for providing sufficient ships were nearly 
jeopardised when one of the personnel vessels, the S.S. Manxman, 
which had already made several trips to Dunkirk, refused to sail. 
Her place was gallantly taken by another, the Royal Sovereign. 

Shortly after 10 p.m. the first ships arrived, the destroyer Whitshed 
leading them in. The harbour was very crowded and, moreover, 
made more dangerous by the large number of wrecks, many of them 
in the fairway. As the fifty or more ships arrived for this final lift 
there was a fresh easterly wind blowing which caused a choppy, 
confused sea off the entrance. Fortunately the ships were spared the 
added difficulty of fog, which was thick off the English coast at the 
time of their departure. 

Inevitably there were a number of casualties from collision and 
grounding, but in the main this last night's effort went smoothly and 
quickly. Encouraged by the French contingents in the pier parties, 
the troops followed one another down to the two piers in a con- 
tinuous stream and marched aboard quickly, enabling the ships to 
get away without waste of time. 

The night's evacuation was due to end at 3.0 a.m., and when the 
last ship sailed five minutes after this time some 26,000 men had been 
embarked. The British pier party was brought home by the destroyer 
Express, which arrived at 2.30 a.m., and she made it the occasion to 
bring back 61 1 troops in addition to the pier party she had been sent 
to collect. As she left, enemy shells began to fall in the harbour area. 
The German guns were now within three miles of the port and the 
end had come. 


There was, however, one final act before Dunkirk was abandoned 
to the enemy. From the Downs, at 8.30 p.m. on the 3rd, three 
specially prepared blockships had sailed for Dunkirk, their mission 
being to scuttle themselves in the fairway between the breakwater 
heads. They were led over by the destroyer Shikari. One, the 
GourkO) was sunk outside Dunkirk by a magnetic mine, but the 
other two scuttled themselves in the channel, though not completely 
blocking it. The Shikari improved the occasion by bringing back 
the French General Barthelemy and 382 troops. She was the last 
ship to leave Dunkirk. 

In all, 338,226 men were brought back from Dunkirk. When the 
operation was begun the Admiralty had hoped for 45,000, and 
Admiral Ramsay, the man on the spot in command, had thought 
that an ambitious estimate. It was the ability of the Navy to control 
the waters of the Channel and of the Royal Air Force to keep back 
the worst of the German air power that had made it possible so 
greatly to improve upon the hoped-for figure. In spite of every 
threat to those narrow sea communications between England and 
the coast of France, threats by enemy E- and U-boats, by magnetic 
mine, by devastating attacks from the air, by the gunfire of shore- 
based batteries, those sea routes were held long enough to rescue an 
army from annihilation. 

The cost in ships had been grievous, and the more so when it was 
realised, as it so quickly was, that it was just those types of ships 
which were to be so desperately required in the struggle ahead. Of 
the forty-one destroyers engaged, six were sunk and nineteen 
damaged, and the losses in other types of ships were in only slightly 
less proportion. Yet the cost was borne willingly and cheerfully, for 
it was an occasion that demanded none but heroic measures. And it 
was in the light of that national heroism in emergency that the sea 
around Dunkirk was thronged not only by naval ships and the 
vessels of many public authorities under naval control, but also by 
large numbers of small craft whose private owners, anxious to help, 
had taken their boats over unheralded into those danger-strewn 
waters. There was an echo of that private heroism in the award later, 
by the yachtsmen of America, of the Blue Water Medal, given only 


for deeds of outstanding courage, to the yachtsmen of Britain for 
the part they played in this great battle. 

The evacuation of Dunkirk was widely hailed as a miracle. But 
the word too easily obscures the fact that it was a superb combined 
operation of all three Services carried through with tenacity, skill, 
and exemplary courage. To the hard fighting of the Army which 
held the enemy at bay on the ground, to the gallant way in which 
the Royal Air Force did continuous battle against heavy odds in the 
sky, and to the skill and fortitude of the Navy which fought its ships 
across to the other side and held the sea lanes open was due the 
success of Operation "Dynamo". 

The successful withdrawal from Dunkirk, however, was not as 
yet the end of the land campaign in Europe. Even as the last troops 
were embarking at that shattered port, the War Cabinet was deciding 
to send three more divisions to France in an attempt to hold a new 
front on the Somme. This movement, in fact, started on yth June 
with the passage of troops to Le Havre, but the rapidity with which 
the land situation deteriorated almost overtook the intention, and 
the troops were withdrawn again through that port and Cherbourg 
on the nth. 

The enemy advance, with Dunkirk now in their hands, gathered 
a fresh momentum. On i4th June the Germans were in Paris, on the 
1 5th they crossed the Rhine at Strasbourg, on the i6th they broke 
through in Champagne, raced down behind the Maginot Line, and 
crossed the Loire. By dusk of the lyth they had occupied Orleans 
and Metz and had reached the Swiss frontier near Basle. All was over 
in the west, and the stillness of shattering defeat ky over the tortured 
land of France. A chapter in French history, and in the history of 
the war, was closing. 

In the face of this swift and sudden onslaught there was no more 
that could be done than to accept the bitter fact that the campaign 
was over and to bring home as many more men as possible. The 
retreating British troops were directed on to the western Channel 
and Biscay ports, and thither again went the destroyers and the 
personnel slaps, and also the liners Otranto, Arandora Star, Strath- 
aird, Georgic, Duchess of York, Batory, SoliesJd, frmconia, and 

Lancastria. The evacuations from Cherbourg and St. Malo went 
smoothly, just over 52,000 men being brought home by the lyth, 
but those from the Biscay ports, being largely beyond the range of 
air cover from home, did not fare so well. In numbers of men 
brought home the figures were certainly impressive, 32,584 from 
Brest and 57,235 from St. Nazaire, but some heavy losses had to be 
accepted from German bombing attacks. The most grievous was 
that of the liner Lancastria^ bombed and set on fire off the mouth of 
the River Loire. She was fully loaded at the time with nearly 6,000 
troops, and some 3,000 of them lost their lives when she sank. 

On the overall view, these evacuations were every bit as successful 
as those from Dunkirk and its beaches, though perhaps less spec- 
tacular. They owed their success very largely to the initiative and 
leadership of the destroyer captains. These young men, arriving 
usually without precise orders since precision was impossible in the 
unstable and constantly changing situation, had to take their own 
decisions in the light of local conditions as they found them. 
Throughout this difficult time their steadiness and general sagacity 
was admirable, their skill and enterprise beyond praise. To them 
many soldiers owed their lives and their liberty. 

During the course of these Biscay port evacuations, another 
immediate problem was taxing the attention of the Board of 
Admiralty. This was the future of the French Fleet. To let it fall 
into the hands of the advancing Germans would be to present a 
hostage to fortune of incalculable magnitude. In Brest the great 
battleship Richelieu was in the last stages of completion, at St. 
Nazaire her sister-ship, the Jean Bart^ was not so far advanced. 
These were but two units of a considerable fleet; the future employ- 
ment by the German Navy of them or of the many other fine French 
ships did not bear contemplation for a moment. 

At a meeting of the Supreme War Council held in France on I2th 
June, with the reality of defeat already casting its shadow before it, 
Admiral Darlan, the French Naval Commander-in-Chief, had 
stated categorically that the French Fleet would never be surren- 
dered and that in the last resort he would send it to Canada. On 
the following day, at the i6th and last meeting of the Supreme War 


Council to be held, it was reported by General Weygand that 
organised resistance was at an end and that the French Army was 
disintegrating into disconnected groups. The moment of Admiral 
Darlan's "last resort" had come and it was important now, before 
the final chance slipped away, to remove the French Fleet away 
from the German danger. 

It was to hold Admiral Darlan to his word, expressed at the 
Supreme War Council meeting of i2th June, that Mr. A. V. 
Alexander, First Lord of the Admiralty, and Admiral Sir Dudley 
Pound, First Sea Lord, flew to Bordeaux on i8th June. They were 
met there with a complete reversal of French naval opinion, the 
Admiral declaring that his fleet must remain in French waters. All, 
however, was not lost, for there were French colonial waters still 
beyond the immediate reach of the enemy and it was thought that, 
for the time being and failing a more positive removal, there must be 
some reasonable grounds for belief that the ships would be safe 
enough there. Mr. Alexander, requiring an assurance to this effect 
from the highest authority, sought an interview with M. Lebmn; 
the President, to find only an overwrought man whose only words 
were, "Ma pauvre France, ma pauvre France," while the tears ran 
down his cheeks. 

In the meantime the French defeat had been followed by reper- 
cussions in the political field. The French Prime Minister, M. Rey- 
naud, had resigned on i6th June and his place was taken by Marshal 
Petain, who by the following day had opened negotiations with the 
German leaders for an armistice. In Britain, as the anxious days 
followed, there was no knowledge of the terms which the Germans 
had imposed, though on 24th June, President Lebrun telegraphed 
to King George VI in London that, according to the armistice terms, 
the French Fleet could not be employed against Great Britain. 
And by this time the major French units were, in fact, beyond the 
enemy's reach. The Richelieu was at Dakar, the/*z Bart at Casa- 
blanca, the Strasbourg and Dunkerque at Oran and Mers-el-Kebir, 
while the main cruiser strength was divided between Toulon, 
Algiers, and Sfax. 

Nevertheless, the War Cabinet was still worried. So much 


depended on the French Fleet; the whole balance of sea power, now 
the only hope left to Britain of winning the war, hung poised pre- 
cariously on the integrity of the German assurances to France. And 
there was no lack of evidence as to the value of a German assurance. 
The events of 1937, 1938, and 1939 were still of too recent occurrence 
to permit of much reliance on a Nazi promise. Even as the War 
Cabinet deliberated on this thorny problem events in the French 
Empire took a sinister turn* Mr. Duff Cooper and Lord Gort, who 
had been sent to North Africa to try to persuade former French 
ministers to set up an emigre government, were rebuffed by General 
Nogues, who refused to receive them, and Lord Dillon, of the 
British Mission in Algeria, reported that there was no hope of any 
resistance there and that the general attitude of the French Fleet in 
Algerian harbours was uncertain. 

The stage was being set for the inevitable climax. The Chiefs of 
Staff, at a meeting on 3Oth June, set out five alternative courses of 
action with regard to the French Fleet. They discarded the first four 
and adopted the fifth, recommending that if concrete guarantees 
could not be obtained on agreement to demilitarise the ships or to 
sail them to transatlantic ports, action should be taken against the 
French Fleet at Oran. This decision was taken against a background 
of stark realism. Already there were obvious thoughts of invasion 
in the air, and the possible employment by Germany of French 
warships to support an assault across the Channel was to tip the 
balance of sea power decisively against Great Britain in that area. 
And in the longer view of attack against seaborne trade the 
possibility was equally unthinkable. 

The War Cabinet, in fact, had itself come to the same conclusion 
as the Chiefs of Staff, though in deference to French susceptibil- 
ities the proposed action had been delayed. But with the publication 
of the Armistice terms all doubt came to an end. Clause 8 of the 
Armistice read: "Except for that part of the Fleet destined for the 
protection of colonial interests, all ships outside French territorial 
waters must be recalled to France." That requirement, it is true, 
was accompanied by a declaration that Germany had no intention 
of using those ships for her own purposes "except for supervision 


and minesweeping", but no one in Britain was prepared to place 
much reliance in such a declaration. Clause 8 was later modified by 
Hitler to allow of the French ships being disarmed in North African 
ports, though whether this information reached the British Govern- 
ment in time is in doubt. There was evidence, too, that the Germans 
had captured the French naval codes and ciphers and were already 
issuing orders in the name of the French Commander-in- Chief. 10 
So the die was cast, and orders issued for action against the ships 
of our former ally. 

On the morning of 3rd July all French ships in British ports were 
boarded and occupied, with on the whole only minor resistance. 
The French squadron at Alexandria, after anxious deliberation, 
accepted a demand to immobilise itself, But at Oran the British 
demands were refused and force became necessary. Vice-Admiral 
Sir James Somerville, in command of Force H, based at Gibraltar 
to guard the western Mediterranean, was compelled to open fire and, 
at a range of 1 5,000 yards, did considerable damage. The Dunkerque, 
attempting to escape, was damaged and ran aground, the old battle- 
ship Bretagne was sunk, the Provence was hit and beached, and some 
smaller ships damaged. But the Strasbourg, accompanied by five 
destroyers, succeeded in escaping and reached Toulon in safety. 11 
Five days later action was taken against the Richelieu at Dakar. 12 In 
two separate attacks, one by the Fleet Air Arm operating from the 
Hermes^ and one by depth charges dropped by a motor-boat, she 
was damaged aft and put temporarily out of action. 

These unhappy operations at Oran and Dakar, as painful and 
unpleasant to the British Navy as to the French, left behind them 
an unpleasant legacy of suspicion and distrust. It was, perhaps, 
epitomised in the action of M. Cambon, the French Ambassador 
in London. After the attack on Oran he called on the Foreign 
Secretary to say that he was resigning his post since he feared he 
might have to make a communication on behalf of his Government 
which, after having lived in England for twenty-five years, he 
would not wish to make. 

The collapse of France and all that it meant to the security of 
Great Britain was not, of course, the only problem facing the War 


Cabinet and the Chiefs of Staff Committee. On loth June, stimu- 
lated by the startling success of the other end of her Axis, Italy 
declared war on France and Britain. Her intervention had long been 
expected and a general plan of operations in such an event had been 
formulated in the Anglo-French staff conversations of May 1939. 
But whereas that general plan had envisaged a France strong and 
active in the western Mediterranean, the situation in those waters 
was now very different. It was in the light of this French naval 
vacuum in the new area of hostilities that the Chiefs of Staff pre- 
sented to the War Cabinet a memorandum 13 covering the essential 
strategy required to safeguard the vital Middle East area. The 
minimum requirement for the successful prosecution of the war, 
they laid down, was the complete denial to the enemy of Egypt and 
the Sudan, from whose territories the Suez Canal could be control- 
led; the successful defence, if attacked, of Iraq for the control of oil 
supplies in Iraq and Persia; of Palestine, which controlled the ter- 
minus of the oil pipeline at Haifa; of Aden, essential for the control 
of the Red Sea route for shipping; and of Kenya, as a second line of 
defence in Africa should Egypt fall. 

The naval implications of this strategical outline, apart from the 
essential maintenance of capital ship fleets based on Gibraltar and 
in the eastern Mediterranean, rested firmly on the ability of the 
Navy to guarantee the passage of merchant ships across the oceans 
necessary to maintain the requisite British forces in the vital Middle 
Eastern area. The Italian intervention had automatically made the 
Mediterranean untenable as an ocean highway for normal merchant 
shipping, and although both ends of that inland sea were firmly held 
by British naval might, every movement of ships to reinforce the 
eastern end, except for a few fast merchant ships, heavily escorted, 
and, of course, naval reinforcements, had inevitably to take the long 
journey around the Cape. This was to strain the resources of the 
Navy almost beyond breaking-point, yet there could be no alterna- 
tive. The only hope of a successful outcome to the conflict depended 
in the final analysis on the ability of Britain to keep her Merchant 
Navy sailing, and it rested on that alone. 

The task, in those anxious days, was stupendous. At home, 


across the Channel and apparently preparing to spring, lay the 
German military might, a force so powerful, so wonderfully inte- 
grated, that it had swept the Army of France into the dust in a single 
month of fighting. Absolute priority at home was given to operations 
necessary to resist the expected invasion, 14 a priority that called for 
substantial naval forces, especially in cruisers, destroyers, and small 
coastal craft. Four flotillas of destroyers, based on the Humber, 
Harwich, Sheerness, and either Dover or Portsmouth, were to form 
the spearhead of attack on any seaborne invasion fleet, and behind 
them, in immediate support, eight cruisers were disposed along the 
east, south, and west coasts. Much of this anti-invasion force had to 
come from the Home Fleet and, indeed, the heavy units of that fleet 
were ordered to accept any risk from air attack, U-boat, or E-boat, 
in order to close the scene of action should invasion forces actually 
attempt the sea crossing. 15 

Responsible naval opinion remained unconvinced of the necessity 
for all these measures. In spite of the German concentration on the 
opposite shore, in spite of the heavy enemy air attacks across the 
Channel, it was, as the Navy well knew, in command of the sea 
that the ultimate decision lay. It was this knowledge, so deep and so 
fundamental, that enabled naval confidence to remain quite un- 
shaken by enemy threats. Admiral Forbes protested, though in vain, 
against this immobilisation of his cruisers and destroyers, so urgently 
needed about their proper naval business of dealing with the armed 
raiders and the U-boats. The War Cabinet and the Chiefs of Staff, 
however, remained adamant, and these naval preparations to repel 
the invasion held the day. 

There were, too, the problems of the Atlantic and the home trade 
to add to the Admiralty's preoccupations. The acquisition by 
Germany of additional U-boat and air bases in Norway was bad 
enough, shortening the U-boats* passage to their operational areas 
by some 1,200 miles and more, but the new bases acquired by the 
Dutch, Belgian, and French collapse made the problem infinitely 
more serious. While France still stood, the passage of the English 
Channel had been effectively denied to the enemy, partly by surface 
patrols and fixed shore defences and partly by a mine barrage across 

the Dover Straits. Three U-boats had akeady come to grief in an 
attempt to force this barrage. But the Channel was now open to 
German ships, for they could rely on continuous air cover through- 
out, provided from the fine French airfields which had fallen into 
German hands. The coastal convoys along the eastern and southern 
coasts of Britain were now easier to attack, both by German E- 
boats, operating from Dutch, Belgian, and French bases, and by 
the German Air Force, whose new French airfields so greatly 
increased the range of action of their aircraft into British waters. 

In the Atlantic, too, the intensity of the battle was certain to 
increase. During the campaign for Norway and for France the 
U-boats had been largely withdrawn from their Atlantic areas to 
support those operations. But now they were beginning to stream 
back, and from new bases that offered them incalculable advantages. 
There was a slight delay in the German operational use of the Biscay 
ports, due to the Allied demolitions, but Lorient was ready early in 
July 16 and the first U-boat entered it on the 7th of that month. 
Brest and La Pallice quickly followed, and a long-range air recon- 
naissance unit, to co-operate in the attack on Atlantic shipping, was 
established at Lorient in the first week of August. A measure of the 
increasing U-boat onslaught was the steep rise in the shipping loss 
for June (58 ships of 284,113 tons) and July (38 ships of 195,825 
tons), nearly all of them in the Atlantic. These were casualties due 
to the U-boats alone; other causes almost doubled these figures. 

Inevitably, this increasing pace of attack on shipping resulted in 
urgent calls for more escorts, the smaller warships whose presence 
alone could add to the security of the ocean and coastal convoys. 
These calls came at an impossible time. Not only was the absolute 
priority given to anti-invasion duties necessarily tying up large 
numbers of destroyers in a vital role, but the losses suffered in 
Norwegian waters and in the evacuations from the French coast 
had already seriously reduced the number available. Out of a 
total strength of 178 destroyers, no fewer than 66 were still under 
repair. By a severe cutting of commitments elsewhere the anti- 
invasion forces were provided, but the resulting margin of defence 
was desperately slender. That the anti-invasion destroyers played a 


vital, and even decisive, part in persuading Hitler first to postpone 
and finally to abandon the proposed invasion of Britain can be dis- 
covered from the German archives, 17 even though, indeed, they 
fought no battle in their anti-invasion role. 

And in the meantime, with the naval forces at home stretched to 
their ultimate limit, war in the Mediterranean had been a reality 
since loth June. In their appreciation of future strategic policy 
formulated by the Chiefs of Staff at the beginning of July, 18 it was 
stressed that our general strategy must remain defensive until two 
main objectives were achieved, the first to expand all our forces with 
the greatest possible speed in order to prevent the enemy from 
gaining a decision in the near future, the second to reach the pro- 
duction totals of war equipment aimed at as necessary before the 
French collapse. This, indeed, was a far more formidable task than 
it might appear, for it meant that the French quota of production 
was now to be added as an additional burden on British factories. 
What made the task of even more gigantic proportions was that to 
the war against Germany in the Atlantic and the nearer seas was now 
added the burden of war against Italy in the Mediterranean. 

Yet there were rays of light in the darkness. Great Britain did not 
at this anxious hour, as so many have described, stand alone against 
the enemy. The Dominions were still in the fight with growing 
forces of men and ships. And in Britain herself were substantial 
forces of Poles, Norwegians, Dutch, Belgians, and French, with 
parts of their navies which had escaped from the Nazi onslaught, and 
a large proportion, too, of their merchant navies to swell the Allied 
shipping pool They, too, were standing firm in the hour of danger. 
An even brighter ray of light shone out on 4th July when the 
President of the United States agreed to technical naval discussions 
between the two countries taking place in London. It was a ges- 
ture which showed the direction in which American sympathies 

Although, through force of circumstances, British major strategy 
was now based on strict defence, it did not mean that no offensive 
action could be taken. Pure defence could well prove dangerous in 
*he psychological atmosphere it generated, as well as being an 


invitation to Germany to hit us when and where she could. Under 
the instigation of Mr. Churchill measures were put in hand to make 
the enemy "wonder when they were going to be struck next instead 
of enforcing us to wall in the island and roof it over". 19 Steps were 
taken to train forces especially suitable for raiding operations and 
instructions issued to press on with the development and production 
of special landing-craft. The organisation of a separate Combined 
Operations Headquarters was also set up, with general instructions 
to plan raids on enemy-occupied coasts. 

The same spirit of offence within the general defensive strategy 
was plainly apparent in the naval war against Italy. The initiative in 
the central and western Mediterranean lay inevitably in the hands of 
the Italian Fleet, supported as it was by reasonable air cover from 
shore-based airfields. It might well have been theirs in the eastern 
Mediterranean as well had the spirit been willing. The necessary 
offensive spirit, however, was not there. Although Mussolini had 
issued a directive that the Italian Navy was to assume "the offensive 
at all points in the Mediterranean and outside", Admiral Cavagnari, 
the Italian Chief of Naval Staff, had already decided that discretion 
was the better part of valour and that his Navy's strategy must be 
defensive in view of the importance of Italian communications to 
North Africa. Only in the disposition of his U-boats did the Italian 
Admiral show any desire to assume the offensive spirit. As an 
opening gambit he had some fifty out on patrol, but these suffered 
such severe losses in the first few days of the Mediterranean war 
that the numbers, and their patrol areas, were both speedily cur- 
tailed. Nine of them were sunk before the end of June and a tenth 
had stranded on a reef in the Red Sea and become a total loss. 

Admiral Cunningham's main preoccupation during these early 
weeks of the Mediterranean war was to keep the Italian Fleet out of 
the eastern Mediterranean and the ^Egean > and thus to secure for 
British ships the ability to carry essential supplies for the fighting 
forces in that area, as well as to cut off seaborne supplies to the 
Italian Dodecanese islands. With his limited forces, especially in 
flotilla ships and aircraft, there was little else that he could do. So 
much of Britain's potential for waging war was locked up in the 


Middle East in the shape of the oilfields of Iraq and Persia that it had 
become an area of paramount importance to the whole prosecution 
of the war. Its integrity from Axis attack or infiltration depended on 
the few British troops and aircraft scattered thinly over its wide 
area, backed by the strength and the resolution of the Mediterranean 
Fleet. If that failed, all was lost. 

But Admiral Cunningham had also another problem, even less 
easy of solution. In the central Mediterranean, less than half an 
hour's flying time from Italian airfields, less than twelve hours' 
steaming from the Italian naval base at Taranto, lay Malta. Almost 
the first warlike act of the Italians was to raid the island, and Italian 
aircraft were dropping bombs there only five hours after the 
declaration of war. Pre-war neglect and wartime priorities in other 
spheres had left Malta virtually defenceless, and"supplies were now 
an urgent necessity. Their passage to Malta and the corresponding 
evacuation of unrequired personnel and stores from Malta gave to 
the Commander-in-Chief the opportunity to strike offensively in 
the central Mediterranean while still remaining within the general 
defensive strategy enjoined by the Chiefs of Staff. Admiral Cun- 
ningham was quick to seize the chance. 

The first brush with the enemy fleet came on 9th July, when both 
navies were covering the passage of convoys, the British to Malta, 
the Italian to North Africa. An air reconnaissance report from Malta 
provided the first intimation that the Italians were out, and the two 
fleets sighted each other during the course of the afternoon. The 
engagement was at long range and indecisive, with the Italians 
turning away at high speed under cover of smoke after the battle- 
ship Giulio Cesare and the cruiser Bolzano had been hit. 

The action was of importance not only in the indication it gave 
to Admiral Cunningham of the probable Italian reactions in future 
encounters between surface ships but also as the first step in the 
establishment of moral ascendancy over the Italians at sea. In 
general, the British ships were slower than the Italian, type for type, 
by from two to five knots, and any Italian unwillingness to stand 
and fight would need to be overcome by other means. An obvious 
answer to that was the carrier, with the ability of her aircraft to 


reach out ahead of the fleet and slow down the enemy by torpedo 

At the time of this action Admiral Cunningham had only the 
obsolescent Eagle as a carrier, though he was shortly to be rein- 
forced by the new Illustrious. She arrived in the Mediterranean in 
September, and in November came the opportunity to put into 
practice a plan that the Commander-in- Chief had long wished to 
try. This was an attack by naval aircraft on the Italian Fleet as it lay 
at anchor in its base at Taranto. Before this operation could be 
carried out the Italians were to experience once more the mettle of 
Admiral Cunningham's ships when the cruiser Colleone was sunk 
off Crete by H.M.A.S. Sydney and the 2nd Destroyer Flotilla. 

The opportunity to attack the Italian Fleet at Taranto was pre- 
sented partly by the arrival at Gibraltar of further reinforce- 
ments for the Mediterranean Fleet and partly by a diversionary air 
attack from the carrier Ark Royal, of Force H, on enemy airfields in 
Sardinia. Accompanied by Admiral Sir James Somerville's Force H, 
based on Gibraltar, the reinforcements steamed east through the 
Mediterranean to Malta, where guns and men were disembarked, 
while the Ark Royal was detached to carry out her part in the 
programme. The reinforcements then steamed on towards Alexan- 
dria with part of the Mediterranean Fleet in company. Meanwhile 
the Illustrious^ screened by four cruisers (which later carried out an 
operation of their own in the Adriatic in which they destroyed an 
enemy convoy) and four destroyers, proceeded to a position off the 
west coast of Greece and from there flew off on the evening of i ith 
November two striking forces of Swordfish, one of twelve aircraft 
and one of nine. The late evening weather was ideal, with the moon 
nearly at the full and extensive thin cloud at about 8,000 feet. The 
two striking forces left the Illustrious at about 8.30 p.m. and 9.30 
p.m. respectively. 

An hour and a half after take-off they were over Taranto. Sur- 
prise was complete, and although the port was strongly defended 
with balloons, anti-torpedo nets, and anti-aircraft guns, the twenty- 
one Swordfish scored a resounding success. The new battleship 
Littorio was hit by three torpedoes and put out of action for five 


months, the older battleships Cavour and Du&o each received one 
torpedo hit and the former was sunk. A cruiser and a destroyer were 
hit by bombs and in addition damage was done to port installations. 
Only two aircraft failed to return from this daring and well-con- 
ceived raid, which was, in the words of Admiral Cunningham, 
probably unsurpassed in history as an example of economy offeree. 

Although only one of the three Italian battleships was permanently 
disabled, the temporary loss of the other two from the active fleet 
had a profound effect on the balance of naval power throughout the 
Mediterranean as a whole. The vigorous action by Admiral Somer- 
ville's ships from Gibraltar and by Admiral Cunningham's from 
Alexandria was driving the enemy back to such an extent that there 
were sanguine hopes of being able to reopen the Mediterranean 
route for special convoys. The success at Taranto added to those 
hopes. Such a convoy did, in fact, get through during the last week 
in November, and its passage led to another brush with the Italian 
Fleet, this time by Admiral Somerville's forces, off Cape Spartivento, 
the southern tip of Sardinia. 

The result, as in Admiral Cunningham's action of 9th July, was 
completely inconclusive. After a brief action at very long range the 
Italian force retired at full speed, and torpedo bombers from the 
Ark Royal, as had their brothers from the Eagle in the former action, 
failed to stop them. Rather than continue a chase that would lead 
him not only unduly close to enemy coastal waters but still farther 
from the convoy whose safety was his prime object, Admiral 
Somerville called off the hopeless pursuit and rejoined the merchant 
ships. For this he was criticised in London, but an investigation by 
Admiral of the Fleet Lord Cork and Orrery found that his action 
was not only fully justified by the circumstances but the only correct 
one in view of the failure of the Ark Royal's aircrews to hit their 
targets. As yet, mainly because of the very rapid expansion of the 
Fleet Air Arm, pilots and observers had not reached the high degree 
of training and experience so necessary for sea operations of this 
nature. It was another legacy of that unhappy pre-war policy which 
had denied to the Navy control of its own air arm. 

In the meantime, around the coasts and over the mainland of 

- 95 

England had been fought the Battle of Britain. In its essentials it was 
an air war, fought for the mastery of the skies as a prelude to inva- 
sion. To the Royal Air Force as a whole, to Fighter Command in 
the main, and to No. 1 1 Group of that Command in particular, must 
go the major credit for that astounding victory. The odds they faced 
were tremendous, their losses were heavy and grievous, the courage 
and tenacity with which pilots again and again hurled themselves at 
the invading aircraft was beyond all praise. But while the losses of 
fighters themselves could be replaced from stock and from an 
expanding production, the losses among the pilots themselves was 
a far more serious matter. The loan of fifty-eight pilots from the 
Fleet Air Arm, some of them straight from the naval fighter school 
at Yeovilton, to help fly the Spitfires and Hurricanes was little more 
than a drop in the ocean, and it required the drastic switching of 
pilots from Bomber and Coastal Commands, a wider use of trained 
pilots from among the Poles, Czechs, Norwegians, Belgians, Dutch, 
and French forces who had escaped to Britain, and the great-hearted 
endeavour of some American volunteers who banded themselves 
together into an "Eagle" Squadron to fight for Britain, to keep 
up the number. 

Below this battle in the skies was fought the battle of the coastal 
waters. Hitler's plan to defeat Britain ky not so much in invasion, 
which in fact was to be the last resort, but in the strangulation of 
trade and the obliteration of war production by)bombardment from 
the air. In the wake of the German armies came the E-boats, pushing 
their bases farther and farther west until they reached Cherbourg 
during the second half of June. They coupled attacks on merchant 
shipping with offensive minelaying in the Thames Estuary, and 
they became a thorn in the side of the coastal convoy system. 
Heavy air attacks on ports and shipping also claimed their victims, 
and the calls for naval protection increased considerably. Nor was 
pure offence neglected, and during these anxious months the 
German "invasion" ports in Europe between Delfzijl and Le Havre 
several times suffered from the weight and accuracy of naval 

This was the traditional naval defence against invasion, tried and 


proved through centuries of experience. It was based on the close 
watch on the invasion forces by flotilla vessels; in the old days by 
sloops, cutters, and gun-vessels, in 1940 by destroyers, motor 
torpedo boats, and gunboats. Behind them lay the immediate stiffen- 
ing of the defence by more powerful ships; in earlier years by 
fourth and fifth rates, today by cruisers. And behind them again lay 
the final safeguard of all, the immense strength of the battle-fleet to 
be called into action when the invasion forces sailed. Here, in 1940, 
across the waters, stood the army of Hitler, as before them had 
stood the armies of Napoleon, of Louis XIV, of Philip II of Spain. 
Between them all and their hearts 9 desire had stood the Navy of 
Britain. Between Hitler and his it still stood. As the days and the 
weeks passed, as the barges and the transports, collected with so 
much dislocation of normal trade, still remained stationary in their 
ports, the Lords of the Admiralty could say, in the words of the 
Earl of St. Vincent, a former First Lord of 150 years ago, that being 
a military question he hesitated to express an opinion about invasion 
as such. All he knew was that an invasion could not come by sea. 

But beyond the drama being played out across the waters of the 
English Channel and the southern North Sea there still remained 
the major task of the war, the crux on which rested the whole war 
strategy of the nation. Two vital requirements dictated the broad 
pattern of naval endeavour, the need to re-establish the ring of sea 
power around a Germany now vasdy swollen by her dramatic 
conquests and by the entry into the war of Italy, and the vital need 
to maintain the regular flow of merchant shipping on which the 
whole ability of the nation to continue the fight depended. Both 
were made immeasurably more difficult by the collapse of the 
European campaign. 

Far out in the Atlantic the line of sea power had now to be 
re-established. With the ports of Norway at his disposal, Hitler 
could now command the eastern North Sea up to the Arctic Circle, 
a wide corridor of ingress and egress for U-boats, armed raiders, 
and the occasional blockade runner. From the ports on the Biscay 
coast the U-boats could reach farther out into the Atlantic, and the 
raiders and blockade runners could penetrate in comparative safety 


deep into the oceans before they reached waters in which British 
sea power could stretch out its long arm to seize them. And from the 
Biscay airfields the German long-range Focke-Wulfs could search 
the Atlantic waters for convoys and report their positions to the 
hungry U-boats. 

The lesson of Norway, the lesson of Dunkirk, the lesson of the 
anti-invasion operations all pointed towards one inescapable fact, 
that ships at sea could not operate in waters dominated by enemy 
air power. Thus the ring around the central powers must needs be 
drawn beyond the range of their aircraft. Britain, outflanked now to 
south and east, had need to guard well the north and west if she 
were not to perish. So, northward, British sea power stretched out 
to Iceland and across the Denmark Straits to the coast of Greenland. 
Westward, it reached from Northern Ireland out into the Atlantic, 
sweeping widely down to the south, to Gibraltar, and to Freetown 
in Sierra Leone. And to complete the circle the sea communications 
of the eastern Mediterranean were held by the Mediterranean Fleet, 
stretching up from Malta to the western coast of Greece. 

Within this tenuous circle were held the Axis powers. It was the 
barrier through which they must break if they were to reach the 
raw materials of the outer world. It could not as yet be held strongly 
enough to prevent the raiders slipping through, nor would it ever 
stop the U-boats. But it could, and did, effectively cut off the vast 
majority of the seaborne trade without which Hitler and Mussolini 
could not win their war. This was a task as old as the Navy itself, a 
task for which the fund of knowledge and experience reached back 
through history as far as the Dutch wars of Cromwell and Charles 
II. It had in turn defeated the Dutch, the Spanish, the French, and 
more recently the Germans themselves in the previous war. Though 
the weapons of sea power had changed, the principles still remained 
the same, and the Navy could face this new task with a confidence 
born of intimate knowledge and experience. 

This was the barrier which had to be held at all costs, for if 
victory were to come it had to serve a dual purpose. It had to do 
more than stop the seaborne trade of Germany and Italy; while 
containing them it had to make possible the slow build-up of British 

power against the day when national strategy could abandon the 
defensive for the offensive. Behind its strength must come the vast 
imports of oil, steel, guns, tanks, aircraft, and food, without which 
there was no future but defeat. Behind it must come the men, from 
the Dominions and Colonies and later from the United States, who 
would add their strength to the armies that, one day, would have to 
fight again in Europe. And behind it, too, must sail the troops and 
the stores to strengthen those other theatres of war, in Africa and 
later in the Far East, where it was vital to hold the enemy. 

In those summer months of 1940 the task appeared stupendous. 
It is not easy now, writing so many years after the event, to recap- 
ture the spirit that so vividly animated the nation at war. It is to be 
read, perhaps, in the speeches at that time of the Prime Minister; it 
is to be glimpsed in a study of the statistics and the reports of the 
battle for Britain; it is to be sensed in the courage of fighter pilots 
who won their fight against tremendous odds, in the doggedness 
of an Army that, tired, defeated, and snatched at the last moment 
from annihilation, turned again without weapons to defend their 
country from invasion, to the tenacity of a Navy that had faced 
savage losses to bring the Army home but had still found the ships 
and the men to stand between the enemy and his ultimate victory, 
and to a civilian population that volunteered in its millions to fight, 
in the Home Guard and with makeshift weapons, the superbly 
trained armies of the would-be invaders. It was the spirit of a 
nation under arms, its courage and determination fortified by 
adversity and danger. 

And in this spirit the Navy could not fail. The Royal Air Force 
had won their battle in the skies and the nation, watching in breath- 
less admiration, could breathe again. It was for the Navy now to 
win the greater battle of the seas, to give to Britain the chance, 
behind its shield, to rebuild her shattered strength. 


Chapter 4 


f | \HE preoccupation, during the summer and autumn of 1940, 

of British naval forces with the threat of seaborne invasion 
across the Channel inevitably reduced the number of ships 
available for anti-submarine operations in the Atlantic. What was 
equally inevitable was that, released from their duties in the Nor- 
wegian and French campaigns, the U-boats would return to the 
Atlantic in the greatest force that they could muster. And to supple- 
ment the depredations of the U-boats, a "wave" of six armed 
merchant raiders was sent out, partly to add to the expected harvest 
of merchant shipping, and partly to draw away the defence in order 
to ease the task of the U-boats. 

Such hopes as the enemy had pinned on the threat of invasion as 
a knock-out blow against Britain faded as the summer and autumn 
passed without any sign of faltering in British resolution. In its 
place, other means of obtaining the victory came up for considera- 
tion. To Admiral Raeder, Commander-in- Chief of the German 
Navy, these means were already apparent. The vulnerability of 
Great Britain to a sustained attack on her trade was as well appre- 
ciated by the German naval leaders as it was by those of Britain, for 
it was the traditional chink in any island nation's armour. It was, 
perhaps, fortunate that other war leaders in Germany were less 
versed in the profound effect that sea power could exercise in any 
campaign against a maritime nation. Both Keitel and Goering, 


commanding the Army and Air Force respectively, had their own 
theories to pursue and their own priorities to nurse, and between 
them they succeeded in diverting from the Navy, and thus from the 
U-boat arm, a reasonably laige proportion of the available manu- 
facturing potential. This competition in priorities was referred to 
Hitler who, though paying frequent lip-service to Raeder's demands, 1 
was by this time already too much involved with more grandiose 
schemes to concern himself with these inter-Service squabbles. He 
was engaged in working out details of Operation "Felix", which 
was the capture of Gibraltar, and of the possibility of acquiring one 
of the Canary Islands from Spain in exchange for French Morocco. 2 
As a result Germany had no more U-boats in September 1940 than 
she had in September 1939, and by that much the attack against the 
weakest link in the British chain was eased. Italian U-boats, opera- 
ting in the Atlantic from Bordeaux, were not in sufficient strength 
greatly to affect the issue. 

The U-boat attack was still further eased by two more decisions 
of that autumn, one American, one British. Towards the end of 
August 1940 an offer was received from the United States of fifty 
obsolete destroyers in exchange for facilities for the construction 
of American naval bases, to be held on long leases, in Newfound- 
land, Bermuda, the Bahamas and certain West Indian Islands, and 
British Guiana. It came at a time of increasingly heavy losses in the 
Atlantic when the need for more escorts, of any sort, was urgent in 
the extreme. The offer was acce pted gratefully, and the first of the 
American "four-stackers", to be absorbed into the Royal Navy as 
"Town" class destroyers, began to arrive at the end of September. 
They were committed to the Atlantic battle almost immediately. 

The second decision was an internal one. On 3rd October the 
Admiralty put forward a memorandum to the Chiefs of Staff ad- 
vocating the acceptance of a "period of relief" in the event of ports 
on the south or east coast being occupied by German invasion 
forces. This might mean, in certain cases, a period of as much as 
three days before adequate naval forces could arrive on the scene, 
but it would free immediately twelve destroyers and thirty anti- 
submarine trawlers for more vital work on the trade routes. The 


memorandum was accepted by the Chiefs of Staff and, on their 
recommendation, confirmed by the War Cabinet, who were no 
doubt fortified in their decision by messages, received the same day 
from the British Ambassadors in Ankara and Sofia, that they had 
received information to the effect that the German Government did 
not now expect to succeed in invading England. 

The capture by the enemy of northern France and the Biscay 
coast not unexpectedly made the use of the south-western approaches 
to Britain too precarious a route for ocean convoys. The area was 
far too close to the new U-boat and air bases of the enemy to be 
used with any measure of security from attack. So, from June 1940 
onwards, both incoming and outgoing convoys were routed to the 
north of Ireland, and plans were made to establish the main naval 
and air headquarters for the battle of the Atlantic at Liverpool 
instead of Plymouth. This new headquarters, under Admiral Sir 
Percy Noble, was set up early in 1941. 

Until this time the general pattern of convoy had entailed anti- 
submarine escort for outgoing convoys to a point about 200 miles 
west of Ireland. From there the merchant ships sailed unescorted in 
company for a further twenty-four hours before the convoys dis- 
persed and ships proceeded independently to their destinations. The 
anti-submarine escort which had taken them out then met an 
incoming convoy, which had been brought over by an ocean escort 
consisting normally of an armed merchant cruiser, and returned with 
it through the U-boat areas to its British destination. 

The new U-boat bases in France, of course, made it essential to 
extend the distance of close anti-submarine escort farther out into 
the Atlantic. Ideally, and as a measure to be adopted at the earliest 
possible moment, anti-submarine escort for the whole of a convoy's 
passage was recognised as the ultimate necessity, but neither in 
June 1940, nor, indeed, for some months to come, did the necessary 
long-endurance escorts exist. In July the limit of close escort was 
extended another hundred or so miles westward, with a further 
extension again in October, but it was not until June of the following 
year that total anti-submarine escort across the Atlantic was estab- 
lished, and still another month was to pass before convoys bound 


to the southward could be given continuous anti-submarine escort 
as far as Freetown, in Sierra Leone. 

With these physical limitations in the extent of convoy protec- 
tion, limitations caused by the shortage of escort vessels and their 
lack of long endurance, the U-boats and raiders made hay while the 
sun shone for them. July, August, September, and October of 1940 
all saw heavy merchant ship losses in the Atlantic, the U-boats alone 
sinking 217 ships of more than 1,100,000 tons during those 123 
days. It was a period which the U-boat commanders themselves 
called "the happy time", for they achieved these gigantic figures 
with a loss to themselves of no more than six of their own craft. 
Among the U-boat commanders operating during these months 
were many of their best-known "aces", men like Prien who had 
penetrated the defences of Scapa Flow in October 1939 to sink the 
battleship Royal Oak Schepke and Kretschmer both of whom 
were decorated for sinking over 100,000 tons of shipping Endrass, 
Frauenheim, and two or three others. Between them, these few 
captains were responsible for the major part of die sinkings, though 
the others were not far behind them. 

Their task was immensely facilitated by the inadequacy of the 
escort, both in numbers and range. Operating from their new Biscay 
bases, even the smaller 5oo-ton U-boats could establish patrol areas 
as much as 600 miles to the westward, far beyond the point where 
the anti-submarine escort could meet the incoming convoys. There 
was little opposition to them out there and their targets were vir- 
tually defenceless. In closer waters the great majority of their 
sinkings were of ships proceeding independently or of stragglers 
from existing convoys, and the lesson from this fact was not 
difficult to learn. Only through adequate end-to-end convoy and 
exemplary convoy discipline could the losses be lowered. The 
straggler took her life in her own hands. 

During September the U-boats in the Atlantic began to pose a 
new problem to the defence. Anti-submarine warfare was based on 
the dual combination of asdic and depth charge, the first to locate, 
the second to destroy. To the U-boat making a conventional sub- 
merged attack it was a formidable foe. But the asdic could not locate 


U-boats on the surface, and it was from the surface, in order to 
escape the asdic's probing beam, that the U-boats now began to 
attack. They came in at night, using the darkness to shroud them- 
selves from visual detection. 

With the surface attack at night came the birth of the "wolf- 
pack" tactics. In its essentials this was no more than the concentra- 
tion of U-boats in the path of an oncoming convoy. A first convoy 
sighting was no longer followed by an individual attack, but by 
long-range shadowing and reporting until the pack had been 
assembled. Only then was the mass attack unleashed, to swamp the 
inadequate escort by sheer weight of numbers and to take a savage 
toll of the unfortunate merchant ships. In September two successive 
convoys 3 were attacked by a pack of ten U-boats north-west of 
Ireland, and sixteen ships were sunk out of them. And in October 
the toll was heavier still. Again it was two North Atlantic convoys 4 
that suffered, a pack of eight U-boats attacking them on four 
successive nights. They were aided by bright moonlight and they 
sank no fewer than thirty-two ships. 

There was at first little answer to this method of attack. The 
asdic was useless; the U-boat, with its tiny silhouette, almost in- 
visible in the darkness. What was needed was, first, a method of 
surface location in the dark, and then of turning night into day in 
the area of location in order to illuminate the attack. Ship-borne 
radar was the answer to the first requirement, and "snowflake", an 
artificial illuminant more efficient than searchlight or starshell, the 
answer to the second. Both these, however, still lay in the future 
so far as the anti-submarine escort was concerned. 

Another answer, and one which was to develop into a truly 
powerful deterrent to the U-boats, was air escort of the convoys. 
In combination with ship escort, virtually complete protection was 
assured, for the aircraft, ranging over the convoy area, forced the 
shadowing U-boat to submerge and thus to lose touch. When fitted 
with ASV (airborne radar), escorting aircraft had an even wider 
range of effectiveness, for their sets could detect surfaced U-boats 
in thick weather where the human eye would fail. But in this early 
period of the battle the necessary numbers of long-range aircraft did 


not exist in Coastal Command, and there were insufficient carriers 
to remedy the lack by the provision of ship-borne aircraft over the 

For the time being, therefore, there was little more to be done 
than to try, through evasive routing, to divert the convoys clear 
of the estimated positions of the U-boats. This, at best, was a 
hazardous answer, for although some of the best brains in the Navy 
were concentrated in the U-boat Tracking Room at the Admiralty, 
they were at this period but groping in the dark for the key. Later, 
as the raw material of Naval Intelligence improved, the Tracking 
Room was to achieve some spectacular successes. 

Yet, for all the inadequate weapons and the shortage of escorts, 
both surface and air, the convoys came through. Some, of course, 
were never found by the U-boats and reached their destinations 
unscathed, others suffered the full force of the enemy's onslaught. 
Those were grim months in the Atlantic, months when death 
stalked across the waters, to strike suddenly and savagely in the 
dark and the cold of a North Atlantic night. The fate of Britain hung 
in the balance, poised precariously on the maintenance of her 
merchant shipping routes with the outer world. Only courage and 
endurance were left to sustain the savage battle that was being waged 
across the oceans, both to bring in the vital imports on which the 
whole life of the nation depended and to take out those reinforce- 
ments to the Middle East on which the whole structure of British 
strategy now rested. 

These months, indeed, exemplified the "finest hour 5 * of the sea- 
men of Britain and her maritime Allies. Men, taken from the sea and 
still suffering from exposure after their ships had been sunk, would 
use the occasion of their first stepping ashore again to ask for 
another ship. Captains and crews, in port after a hazardous crossing, 
would speed the turn-about of their ships to make them the more 
quickly available for the next convoy. The officers and men of the 
escort vessels drove themselves to the very edge of endurance, and 
beyond. Of all the weapons that were arrayed against the U-boats 
in this tremendous battle, there were only courage and endurance 
that were never in short supply. 


U-boats, however, were not the only cause of maritime loss. The 
first squadron of long-range reconnaissance Focke-Wulf "Kondor" 
aircraft, based near Bordeaux, began to operate out into the Atlantic 
in August with a dual role, reporting the positions of convoys and 
attacking stragglers or ships routed independently. During the four 
months from July to October 1940 they added another 290,000 tons 
of shipping to the total loss, quite apart from the indirect damage 
they caused through locating convoys for the U-boats. 

Farther afield, in the wastes of the South Atlantic, Pacific, and 
Indian Oceans, the armed raiders too were reaping their harvest. 
Six had set out from German ports between the end of March and 
the beginning of July, and all were still at large. With the virtual 
closing of the Mediterranean to through traffic by the entry of Italy 
into the war, almost all reinforcements to the Middle East theatre 
were forced to take the long sea route around the Cape of Good 
Hope. These troop convoys all required an ocean escort, absorbing 
the whole of the cruiser strength of the stations through which they 
passed. There were none left from which to provide raider-hunting 
groups such as had been formed to search out the GrafSpee in 1939. 

Nor, indeed, were raider-hunting groups the correct answer to 
the problem. The raiders picked their victims from the large num- 
bers of Allied ships which still crossed the oceans unescorted. 
Nothing was easier for them than to pounce upon some single ship, 
capture or sink her, and then disappear again into the vast open 
spaces of the oceans. To try to track them down was a naval under- 
taking of a magnitude far beyond the resources of the local Com- 
manders-in-Chief, a task greater indeed than that of searching for 
the proverbial needle in the haystack. In terms of normal visibility 
from a masthead look-out it was, in absolute fact, the equivalent of 
trying to find the needle in a hayfield of just over sixty acres in area. 

In the light of after-knowledge we know now that the raider- 
hunting groups were a most uneconomical use of ships. The real 
answer to the raiders was to remove their prey from the open seas 
and to force them to seek out convoys for their victims. Only thus 
could they be tracked down, by making them reveal themselves in 
those places where the British naval strength already lay. It is a 


point of some interest in this connection that all these enemy 
raiders had instructions never to approach a convoy while on their 
cruises of destruction. 

During the four months ending in October 1940, these six 
raiders added to our merchant ship losses to the extent of over 
225,000 tons, all of it without exception from unescorted merchant 
ships. In the light of the heavy losses suffered, the slight delay in 
shipping which full convoy would impose might well have been a 
small price to pay for immunity from the raiders' grasp. 

While this vital battle for the sea communications of the world 
was being waged in the oceans, another, no less vital, was being 
fought in the Mediterranean. After an initial hesitation at the time 
of the Italian declaration of war, when a tentative proposal by the 
First Sea Lord to withdraw the Mediterranean Fleet from the eastern 
basin had produced both a strong protest from Admiral Cunning- 
ham and a prompt veto from the Prime Minister, 5 the Chiefs of 
Staff had been firm in their resolve to hold the Middle East at all 
costs. 6 The troop and supply convoys ran steadily and successfully 
from Britain, and the safe arrival of each at Suez added perceptibly 
to the build-up in strength in this important theatre. 

German eyes, too, were beginning to look in this direction. 
Expansion to the eastward was barred by Russia, where the Non- 
Aggression Pact, signed in 1939, was still in force, although now 
beginning to wear a little thin. To the west stood the sea power of 
Britain, hard pressed by the U-boats but still forming a massive 
barrier to any German intrusion in that direction. But in the south 
there seemed to be a door that was opening, with an Italian foot 
already thrust across the step. A big heave there might well fling it 
open, to shatter the ring which British sea power had thrown 
around the German menace. The more that Hitler studied it, the 
more glittering did the prize appear, giving an ultimate promise of 
a break-through into the Indian Ocean and the possibility of a 
junction with the naval and military power of Japan. 

Three possible courses of action presented themselves to the 
eager eye of the German ruler. Perhaps Spain could be persuaded, 
with the promise of Gibraltar and French Morocco, to permit the 


passage of German troops to attack Gibraltar and Portugal. Such a 
move would bring Germany right into the Atlantic, through the 
use of the Azores and the Canary Islands, and would also open the 
road to Dakar in French West Africa. It would bring, too, control 
of the entire western Mediterranean basin by the elimination of 
Gibraltar as a British base. Occupation of the Azores would give 
vastly improved opportunities for attacking the Atlantic shipping, 
while Dakar as a naval base would make almost impossible the 
continuance by Britain of her reinforcement convoys to the Middle 
East. Admiral Raeder, in his reports to Hitler, stressed continually 
the great advantages which possession of Dakar would bring to 
Germany, 7 and the vital role it could play in breaking the strangle- 
hold of British maritime supremacy. 

Spain, however, was not yet ready to play the German game. 
The British attack on the French ships at Oran had made a profound 
impression in Madrid, proving to the Spaniards that there was still 
plenty of fight left in the British lion. Moreover, Spain herself was a 
maritime power and knew from her own historical experience how 
effective the imponderable weapon of sea power could be in war. 
In reply to Hitler's requests for Spanish acquiescence in these 
German moves, Franco demanded to see a German invasion of 
England actually launched before he committed himself. Further 
expostulations by Hitler had the result of Franco raising his demands 
still higher, now to include the cession to Spain of Gibraltar, French 
Morocco, Oran, and additional territory in West Africa. Finally, the 
two dictators met each other at Hendaye in October, to thrash the 
matter out between them. What transpired at this meeting is not 
known, but Hitler returned from it infuriated and wrote to Ciano, 
the Italian Foreign Minister, that sooner than go through such an 
experience again he would rather have three or four teeth out. 8 

A second line of action to bring Germany into the Mediterranean 
theatre was the direct stiffening of the Italian Army in Libya by 
German contingents, a combination of the two to drive back the 
British forces in Egypt and eliminate the naval base at Alexandria 
on which Admiral Cunningham's fleet depended. In this case it was 
Italian pride that proved the initial stumbling-block, for Mussolini 


was in no mood in those early days to welcome German intervention 
in what was essentially an Italian sphere of influence. Less than six 
months later, smarting from the effect of General WavelTs great 
offensive, Mussolini was to sing a very different tune. 

The third means of German intervention into the Mediterranean 
theatre was an advance through the Balkans, to bring Hitler's forces 
to the Mediterranean coastline of Greece, to safeguard the Ruman- 
ian oil wells from air attack, and at the same time to weaken Russia 
strategically by turning her southern flank. In the longer term view 
it would also bring the possibility, through exploitation of the new 
positions held on that coast, of so threatening die British position in 
the eastern Mediterranean as eventually to make it untenable. This 
plan was known as Operation "Marita", and Hitler gave orders for 
detailed planning to begin on I2th November. 9 One month later he 
combined it with another operation, to which he gave the code- 
name "Barbarossa". This was the invasion of Russia, planned to 
follow the march to the Mediterranean coast. 

This German intervention in the Mediterranean, to which Ad- 
miral Raeder paid so much importance, was rudely upset by the 
Italian invasion of Greece on 28th October. Among the Nazi war 
leaders only Raeder fully appreciated the tremendous importance 
which the Mediterranean theatre could play in the German war 
plans, the equally tremendous danger that defeat there could have 
on the whole German strategic concept. But his constant warnings 
to Hitler passed unheeded, or at best received but lip-service from 
the Nazi leader, who was now pinning his faith on a lightning land 
campaign against the Russian colossus in the East. Operation 
"Marita" was placed temporarily on the shelf, leaving Mussolini to 
pull his own chestnuts out of the fire he had kindled in Greece, and 
Operation "Barbarossa" occupied all Hitler's thoughts. 

Italy's invasion of Greece was no surprise to the British Chiefs of 
Staff.. They had discussed the possibility at a meeting on 23rd 
August and had then come to the conclusion that any material 
assistance to Greece could not be made available until the British 
Middle East bases were secure from an Italian attack on Egypt. 10 
In the following month British-Greek conversations for a co- 


ordinated defence of Crete were held, and it had been agreed 
then that naval assistance in the event of invasion could be expected 
within thirty hours, but that military and air assistance would in- 
evitably be limited. 11 When the actual Italian invasion of Greece 
took place, Crete was hurriedly occupied in accordance with the 
pledge to Greece and a forward naval base established at Suda Bay, 
though with considerable limitations in the matter of defence, not 
only through the lack of suitably placed airfields but also because of 
great shortages of most other types of defence material. The spirited 
resistance by the Greek Army and its remarkable success in driving 
the Italian invaders back into Albania shelved for the moment, 
though only for the moment, any question of substantial military 
reinforcement on the Greek mainland. A small number of Royal 
Air Force aircraft, and some Fleet Air Arm torpedo bombers to act 
against Italian supply shipping, proceeded to Greece where they 
gave most valuable assistance. 

It is against this background that the next phase of the Mediter- 
ranean sea war must be studied. The military reinforcement of the 
Middle East had been accompanied by a naval reinforcement of 
Admiral Cunningham's fleet, while the successful Fleet Air Arm 
attack on Taranto had still further redressed the adverse balance. 
Yet, in spite of all, the Italian Navy still had, ship for ship, a good 
margin of superiority both in speed and in gun-range over the ships 
to which they were opposed. What they appeared to lack, in the 
evidence of the two surface ship brushes that had already taken place 
off Calabria and Cape Spartivento, was the aggressive leadership 
which could turn these material advantages to effect in the Mediter- 
ranean battle. 

Early in December 1940, General Wavell launched his attack on 
the Italian Army in Libya, and within four days had scored his first 
remarkable success at the battle of Sidi Barrani. From then on the 
Italian Army was subjected to a series of shattering assaults which 
drove it ever back with fantastic losses. This advance on shore 
required a corresponding support from the Mediterranean Fleet, and 
Admiral Cunningham's ships were called upon to assist to the 
utmost in maintaining the Army's momentum. 


Early in the campaign an Inshore Squadron was formed whose 
duty was to follow the advance, to keep it adequately supplied by 
sea, and to assist generally by bombardment of shore positions and 
by clearing and bringing into operational use the North African 
ports as they were captured by General Wavell's forces. Tobruk fell 
on 22nd January, Derna on the 3Oth, Benghazi on 6th February, and 
both Tobruk and Derna were quickly cleared by the Navy and used 
for the passage of supplies for the advancing troops. Benghazi, how- 
ever, presented a more difficult problem, for added to extensive 
damage in the harbour area was the fact that it was within air 
striking range from the Sicilian airfields. Several small ships were 
sunk there while trying to bring the port into operation and finally, 
in the absence of adequate anti-aircraft defence, the hope of using 
Benghazi as an advanced supply base had to be abandoned. 

This outstandingly successful campaign on land owed much to 
the flexibility of British sea power in the sea areas around those 
coasts. Because of the extreme shortage of mechanical transport 
ashore, seaborne supplies played a vital part in keeping up the 
momentum of the British advance. Indeed, the whole of this 
remarkable campaign stands out as a shining example of that close 
co-operation of sea, land, and air power which alone can bring 
victory in an operation of such a nature. Fundamentally, this was a 
victory which sea power alone had made possible, for in its essentials 
it had depended on the integrity of British sea communications for 
the transport of the Army and its weapons to this theatre of opera- 
tions. That was the naval commitment, the cornerstone of all 
strategic planning. 

Here, then, was the rosy side of the picture. In Egypt and Greece 
the enemy was on the retreat, in the Mediterranean sea areas the 
Italian Navy still remained subdued after its rough handling at 
Taranto and appeared completely to have lost the initiative. But 
even as the sun shone upon these Allied efforts, the storm clouds 
were gathering over the horizon. To stiffen the Italian Air Force 
came the well-trained, anti-shipping German Fliegerkorps X, which 
included two dive-bomber units with fifty-four Stukas among its 
120 aircraft. It was based in Sicily. Also preparing to intervene in the 


North African fighting was a German armoured corps, placed under 
the command of General Rommel. And up in the Balkans, with its 
eyes on the Greek Mediterranean coastline and the advantages to be 
gained from an occupation of it, lay in wait another armoured corps, 
with an infantry division and airborne troops to accompany it. 
Hitler was setting the Middle Eastern stage with all the ingredients 
of high drama. 

It was the Luftwaffe, from its Sicilian airfields, which struck first. 
The apparently favourable naval situation in the Mediterranean was 
seized by the Admiralty to stage a complicated operation which 
embraced the passage of military supplies from Gibraltar to Malta 
and Greece, more supplies and troops from Alexandria to Malta, and 
eight empty ships from Malta to Alexandria. The entire Mediter- 
ranean Fleet and the whole of Force H were engaged to cover these 
movements and the whole operation was given the code name 
"Excess". The ships from Gibraltar and Alexandria left harbour on 
6th January, 1941. 

The general pattern of the operation followed the normal plan 
which had been evolved for the passage of convoys to Malta. As the 
merchant ships entered the Mediterranean from Gibraltar they were 
given close escort by cruisers and destroyers as far as the Sicilian 
Narrows, with the big ships of Force H providing distant cover in 
case the Italian Fleet should venture out. The Mediterranean Fleet 
from Alexandria met the convoy in the Sicilian Narrows, where the 
junction enabled it to exchange guardians for its onward passage to 
its destination. In Operation "Excess" the first part went entirely 
according to plan, and the few attempts by the Italian Air Force to 
interfere were easily beaten back by naval fighters from the Ark 
Royal, the carrier with Force H. 

During the morning of xoth January, Admiral Cunningham 
joined the convoy, with the battleships Warspite and Valiant and 
the carrier Illustrious. Force H was now on its way back to Gibraltar, 
its part in the operation having been successfully accomplished. The 
Mediterranean Fleet, however, had been shadowed and reported 
almost since leaving Alexandria, and it was virtually certain that 
there was trouble in store, if only of the Italian variety. But in the 


afternoon of the roth a new enemy appeared in the sky. No longer 
was it only Italian aircraft to threaten the passage of the ships; now 
the menacing forms of Junkers 87 dive-bombers brought a far more 
vivid portent of danger. They chose the Illustrious as their target and 
dived down on her in concentrated attacks. In the space of four or 
five minutes she was hit six times by heavy bombs, while three more 
very near misses added considerably to the damage. Sorely struck, 
she reached Malta that night, only to become the victim of more 
furious attacks when enemy reconnaissance planes spotted her there. 
Again she was hit but, by tremendous efforts on the part of her 
company and the dockyard, she was patched up sufficiently to slip 
away thirteen days later and reach Alexandria in safety. 

The success of the dive-bombers in hitting the Illustrious was not 
the end of the story of Operation "Excess". On the nth the Medi- 
terranean Fleet was still within range of their devastating attacks and 
two cruisers, the Gloucester and Southampton, fell victim to their 
bombs, the Southampton being damaged so severely that she had 
later to be sunk by our own forces. Fourteen ships in four convoys 
had reached their destinations in safety, but the cost to the Mediter- 
ranean Fleet had been a heavy one. 

The disablement of the Illustrious and the loss of the Southampton 
pointed only too clearly to the new enemy in the Mediterranean 
picture. No longer was the Italian Navy and Air Force the only 
threat to be considered, the intrusion of the Luftwaffe into this new 
sphere posed a new and more menacing problem. It seemed a 
reasonable assumption that the air attack on Malta was certain to be 
stepped up and that the central Mediterranean waters were to be 
subjected to an air dominance as effective as that which had already 
been experienced by the Navy off Norway and in the English 
Channel. Both these assumptions were fulfilled within a very few 
days of the arrival of FKegerkorps X. 

This new threat from the air, however, was not the only factor 
to cloud the Mediterranean sky. In view of the disastrous reverses 
sustained by the Italians, both in Albania and in North Africa, Hitler 
had been forced to modify his own plans and to intervene in both 
theatres as the only means of preventing a complete collapse. On 


nth January 12 he issued the directive which set these new plans in 
motion, and what at first had been viewed as precautionary move- 
ments now took on the force of reality. Operation "Marita", the 
advance into Greece, became a firm commitment and the move of 
Fliegerkorps X to Sicily, originally a temporary measure, was now 
made permanent, with orders not only to cover troop and supply 
convoys from Italy to North Africa but also to hold up the British 
advance in Cyrenaica until the Afrika Korps could intervene in the 

The Greeks, too, in their campaign in Albania, were beginning 
to meet stiffer resistance from the air, presaging the forthcoming 
German intervention in this Italian-instigated campaign. Their 
supplies were already falling below the danger-point. This matter 
was under urgent discussion in London, mainly with a view to the 
desirability of large-scale British intervention in Greece when the 
expected German invasion took place. 

It was fully recognised by the War Cabinet that any decision to 
reinforce Greece in the event of German invasion through the 
Balkans must inevitably bring to a stop General Wavell's advance 
in North Africa. But the political advantages of such a move, par- 
ticularly in Turkish, Russian, and United States eyes, were stressed 13 
both by the Chiefs of Staff and by the War Cabinet, and were held 
fully to justify the drawbacks they would impose in North Africa. 
The general conclusion of the Defence Committee of the War 
Cabinet was that, after the capture of Tobruk, operations in Libya 
should be limited to what could be done without great loss and that 
substantial assistance to Greece should be given the first priority. 
So the die was cast and the curtain raised on another tremendous 
Mediterranean drama, in which the British Fleet was to be stretched 
to new and almost unbelievable limits of endurance and fortitude. 

It was at this crucial moment, with the promise of additional 
entanglements in Greek waters hanging over the ships of the 
Mediterranean Fleet, that the Prime Minister, in his capacity as 
Minister of Defence, put forward new proposals for more aggressive 
action in that theatre. An earlier project to seize the small island of 
Pantellaria in the Sicilian Narrows, proposed by Admiral of the 


Fleet Sir Roger Keyes, had rightly been condemned by Admiral 
Cunningham as adding one more commitment to his already over- 
burdened fleet. He considered, moreover, that Pantellaria could 
serve no useful purpose in view of the proximity of the Sicilian 
airfields. This proposal was now revived again, only to be turned 
down once more by the Chiefs of Staff. So instead of the attack on 
Pantellaria, the Prime Minister now asked for plans to be prepared 
for attacking the principal islands in the Dodecanese, with a date for 
attack not later than ist March. 

This requirement was submitted to the two Commanders-in- 
Chief concerned, Admiral Cunningham and General Wavell, and 
the gist of their reply was that, with the forces at their disposal, they 
could not possibly undertake more than one operation at a time. 
They also pointed out that a new enemy was appearing in the 
Mediterranean, and that what might well have been possible against 
Italian opposition was a very different proposition when the opposi- 
tion was German. And there the matter lay until, in the course of the 
next few weeks, events at sea overtook the plans and rendered them 

Indeed, during those weeks, the fleet was faced with so many 
commitments in the eastern Mediterranean that there were in- 
sufficient ships and aircraft to carry out, in the central area, the many 
essential duties that fall to the proper exercise of sea power. With 
the military reinforcement of Greece established as the first priority 
by the War Cabinet, and with the need to escort those convoys to 
their destination, the Italian convoys bringing succour to their 
demoralised army in Tripolitania were of necessity allowed to pass 
almost unscathed. The few British submarines available put up a 
gallant fight and worked tirelessly in most difficult conditions, but 
they alone could not bar a sea route so short that the danger area 
could be crossed under cover of darkness. To do that effectively 
required surface forces and ample aircraft, and neither of those was 
available. The Italian convoys continued to sail and to arrive in 
comparative safety, and the succour they brought was potent in the 
extreme. During this month of March they ferried across the 
Mediterranean General Rommel and his Afrika Korps. 


Farther eastward the troop convoys were running from Alexan- 
dria to the Piraeus carrying much of the Army in North Africa and 
its supplies to a new theatre of war. The first convoy had left 
Alexandria on 5th March, and during the next two months over 
66,000 troops were carried to Greece and Crete under the protection 
of the Royal Navy without the loss of a single man or item of 
equipment at sea. There was, at first, virtually no interference from 
the enemy against this tempting target, even though, in comparison 
with the Italian troop convoys to Tripoli, these British ones to 
Greece had a far longer and more exposed route to cover. It was 
reasonably certain, however, that this immunity from attack could 
not last, and that sooner or later they would prove sufficient of an 
attraction to sting the Italian Fleet into activity. Admiral Cunning- 
ham was well aware of this danger and was on the look-out for any 
signs of Italian naval movements which might presage an attack. 

Signs of movement came, through Naval Intelligence reports, on 
25th March. On the strength of these reports Admiral Cunningham, 
as a first move, diverted all shipping from the sea area south and 
west of Crete, so that the enemy blow, should it fall, would find no 
target at which to strike. 

The Italian Navy had, in fact, been prodded into activity by the 
German Naval Staff. 14 A substantial squadron, consisting of the new 
battleship Vittorio Veneto, eight cruisers, and a screening force of 
destroyers, all under the command of Admiral lachino, sailed from 
their various bases on the 26th to rendezvous off Syracuse and to 
strike a blow at the British convoys on their way to Greece. In point 
of fact, they put to sea under a misapprehension, relying on claims by 
the German Fliegerkorps X that they had damaged the Barham and 
Warspite in bombing attacks on Alexandria and that both ships 
were out of action. 15 

In the meantime Admiral Cunningham was making his own 
dispositions. Vice-Admiral H. D. Pridham-Wippell (Vice-Admiral 
Light Forces) was ordered to be in a position south of the western 
end of Crete at dawn on 28th March with the cruisers Orion, Ajax, 
Gloucester, and Perth, and four destroyers. The Commander-in- 
Chief himself sailed from Alexandria at dusk on the 27th, with the 


Warspite, Barham, Valiant, and Formidable (which had replaced the 
damaged Illustrious), screened by nine destroyers. 

At first light on the 28th, air searches were flown off from the 
Formidable and the first enemy report soon reached the flagship. 
This was of a force of Italian cruisers and destroyers in the same 
general area as the Vice-Admiral Light Forces. Admiral Cunning- 
ham altered the course of the fleet to close the enemy and increased 
to full speed. While this was happening, Admiral Pridham-Wippeirs 
ships were themselves sighted hy an aircraft catapulted from the 
Vittorio Veneto, and Admiral lachino, who was on the point of 
abandoning his sweep into ^Egean waters, turned to close the 
British cruisers. And at almost the same moment, over the northern 
horizon, a squadron of three Italian Zara class cruisers was sighted 
from the Orion. They closed rapidly and opened fire with their 
8-inch guns shortly after 8.0 a.m. 

To the Commander-in-Chief, on the bridge of H.M.S. Warspite, 
the situation appeared confused. There were some inaccuracies in 
the enemy positions as reported by the Formidable** aircraft, and it 
was difficult for him to determine accurately either the composition 
or the positions of the various enemy squadrons. But as further 
reports came in, and especially the visual sighting report of the three 
Zaras from the Orion, the situation became clearer and Admiral 
Cunningham realised that he had to deal with two distinct groups 
of enemy cruisers, each with destroyers in company. As yet, neither 
side was aware that anything more than light forces of the other 
were at sea. 

The action began in the traditional way, with Admiral Pridham- 
Wippell attempting to lead the enemy cruisers down towards his 
advancing Commander-in-Chief, still some ninety miles distant to 
the south-east. For nearly an hour there was a running fight at 
extreme range between the cruisers, with no ships on either side 
being hit. Finally, at 9.0 a.m., the Italian cruisers broke off the action 
and, reversing their course, steered to the westward. They had 
received orders from Admiral lachino to do so as he considered 
that they were being drawn into waters where they were in danger 
of attack from British shore-based aircraft. 16 


Admiral Pridham-Wippell, having reported the alteration of 
course to his Commander-in-Chief, himself steered a parallel course 
in order to keep in touch. In the Warspite it appeared to Admiral 
Cunningham that his cruisers might be heading for some trouble, 
for the second force of enemy cruisers should by now, if their 
original reported position had been correct, be approaching the area. 
As a result he ordered the Formidable^ shortly after 9.30 a.m., to fly 
off a torpedo striking force to relieve the pressure on the Orion and 
her consorts. 

A little over one hour later the whole situation in the battle was 
dramatically transformed. Just before 11.0 a.m. the look-out in the 
Orion foretop sighted, away up to the north, the unmistakable 
outline of a battleship. This was the Vittorio Veneto which, ever 
since her aircraft's sighting of Admiral Pridham-Wippell's cruisers, 
had been making her best speed towards the battle. And she was a 
formidable opponent indeed, having a substantial margin in range 
and a fractional margin in speed over the Orion and her three com- 
panions. Within a minute or two she had opened an extremely 
accurate fire with her 1 5-inch guns, though fortunately doing no 
more than very minor damage from shell splinters. Admiral Prid- 
ham-Wippell at once altered course to the southward and made 
smoke to shroud his movements from this new and dangerous 

The situation in which the Vice-Admiral Light Forces now 
found himself was one of potential danger. On his port quarter was 
the Vittorio Veneto >, firing at him with her 1 5 -inch guns and shooting, 
moreover, with remarkable accuracy. Away on his starboard quarter 
the Italian cruisers, emboldened by this new turn of events, were 
altering course south-westward again to join the action. They, too, 
had a good margin of superiority, both in speed and gun-range. But 
such danger as existed was quickly removed by the arrival of the 
Formidable 's strike aircraft. Sent out by Admiral Cunningham to 
attack the cruisers, they sighted instead the Vittorio Veneto and 
gratefully accepted this new and far more valuable target. Though 
all their torpedoes missed, the effect was to discourage the enemy 
from continuing the chase. Both enemy forces altered course to the 


north-west and set a course for home. By the time the Orion emerged 
from her smoke-screen the Italian ships were over the horizon and 
the sea was clear. Admiral Pridham-Wippell decided to rejoin his 
Commander-in-Chief, and made contact with the battle-fleet about 
an hour later. 

There remained to Admiral Cunningham but one hope now of 
stopping the flying enemy, a hope bound up in the torpedoes of the 
Albacores and Swordfish of the Formidable and a few similar aircraft 
based in Crete and Greece. Only if they could hit the Vittorio 
Veneto and slow her down could the British battle-fleet reach her and 
bring her to action. A second strike from the Formidable was flown 
off and reached the enemy at 3.15 p.m. It produced the result for 
which Admiral Cunningham was praying. Lieutenant-Commander 
J. Dalyell-Stead, leading the squadron, hit the Vittorio Veneto on her 
port quarter and fractured the port outer shaft, though he lost his 
own life through superb gallantry in pressing home his attack to 
point-blank range. The Vittorio Veneto's speed was temporarily 
reduced to sixteen knots, and hopes of catching the enemy during 
the night began to rise. 

The Vittorio Veneto^ now but forty-five miles ahead and steaming 
at reduced speed, placed herself in the centre of a compact group of 
cruisers and destroyers, forming a most difficult target to hit. From 
the air her speed was estimated at fifteen knots; she had in fact, 
been able later to increase to nineteen, and those extra four knots 
were to make a big difference in the final stages of the battle. 

During the afternoon Admiral Cunningham detached the Vice- 
Admiral Light Forces with his cruisers to regain touch with the 
enemy. Steaming at thirty knots they narrowed the distance between 
the opposing forces, but not sufficiently fast to catch up before dark. 
The battle-fleet, at its full speed of twenty-four knots, was also in 
hot pursuit, but now with little hope of reaching the enemy battle- 
ship and forcing an action unless she could once again be slowed 
down. Accordingly, the Commander-in-Chief ordered the Formid- 
able to fly off a third striking force, timed to reach the enemy at dusk. 
At half-past seven that evening, from the bridge of the Orion, 
Admiral Pridham-Wippell saw the enemy's reaction to the air 


attack some fifteen miles ahead of him. The searchlights were plainly 
visible and the air was filled with a tremendous barrage of "flaming 
onions" and tracer shell of various colours. "They must have been 
very gallant men who went through it", wrote the Vice-Admiral in 
his report. 

One hit was scored, but unfortunately it was not the battleship 
which suffered. The ship that was hit was the cruiser Polo, in 
position abeam of the Vittorio Veneto* The aircraft's torpedo hit her 
on her starboard side and brought her to a complete stop. She 
remained alone, completely disabled and in the path of the advancing 
British battle-fleet while the rest of the Italian ships steamed off 
to the westward. Her crew, demoralised by this adverse turn of the 
wheel of fortune, broached the wine casks, 

"Probable hits" on the battleship were reported to the Com- 
mander-in-Chief, but this, though encouraging, was not sufficiently 
precise for Admiral Cunningham to be certain of catching the 
Vittorw Veneto. Through a signal from the Orion the Commander- 
in-Chief knew that Admiral Pridham-WippelTs cruisers had re- 
gained touch with the distant enemy, and as a result he now 
ordered a destroyer force to forge ahead and attack. This would 
commit the British battle-fleet to a night action, but the risks 
always inherent in a fleet action during the hours of darkness were 
well worth accepting with so great a prize almost within grasp. It 
seemed as though the desired result could hardly fail of achieve- 
ment, for the cruisers already in touch with the enemy should be able 
to direct the destroyers on to their target. 

The sun had set just before 7.0 p jn. and the twilight had faded 
into darkness as the destroyers, steaming at twenty-eight knots, 
drew ahead of the fleet. The sea was calm and there was no 
moon. The last reported course and speed of the enemy was 
approximately north-west and thirteen knots, and Captain Mack, 
leading the destroyers, expected to come up with them in about two 
and a half hours* time. What he could not know was that, almost at 
the moment of his leaving the battle-fleet, the Italian force altered 
course to the northward and increased speed to nineteen knots. 

An unfortunate chain of events deprived Admiral Cunningham 


of the results he had worked so hard to achieve. Captain Mack, in 
his chase after the enemy, decided to steer to the northward of the 
Vittorio Veneto and then, when his reckoning put him ahead of her, 
to turn to the southward to search. This choice, instead of the 
alternative of passing south of the Vittorio Veneto and searching 
northward, had the disadvantage of making him pass between our 
own cruisers and the enemy they were shadowing, forcing Admiral 
Pridham-Wippell to turn away to the northward and to lose touch. 
An added complication was a radar contact of three ships reported 
from the Ajax, one of Admiral Pridham-WippeU's cruisers, which 
in the Orion was thought to be Captain Mack's destroyers coming 
up to the attack. They were, in fact, the Italian cruisers Zara and 
Flume, and probably a destroyer, making a belated return to help the 
crippled Pola. They had the effect of making Admiral Pridham- 
Wippell alter course still farther to the northward in order to open 
the way for what he assumed to be the advancing destroyers. 

Thus it was that the Vittorio Veneto was missed. At 11.15 
that night, after a devastating action with the Italian cruisers, 
Admiral Cunningham sent a signal ordering all forces not actually 
engaged in sinking the enemy to retire to the north-east. To 
the best of his knowledge at that time the cruisers and also the 
destroyers were in contact with the main enemy force, as both forces 
had recently made the Night Alarm signal which had been received 
in the flagship. But in fact neither force was in touch, both Night 
Alarms having been made on the sighting of a red rocket fired into 
the night sky. Admiral Pridham-Wippell withdrew his cruisers on 
receipt of the signal, but Captain Mack, on inquiring whether the 
signal referred to him, was informed "after your attack". 17 At 
midnight, estimating that he was far enough ahead of the enemy, 
Captain Mack turned his destroyers to the southward on a searching 
course. But by now the enemy's earlier alteration of course and his 
increase in speed had taken him clear of the pursuit and there were 
no ships left for the destroyers to find. The red rocket was subse- 
quently revealed as a visual signal from the Vittorio Veneto to 
indicate an alteration of course to her accompanying ships. By so 
narrow a margin was the great prize missed. 


In the meantime the stationary Pola lay in the path of the 
advancing battle-fleet. A minute or two after 10 p.m. the Valiant's 
radar picked up the enemy ship at a range of nine miles and Admiral 
Cunningham at once altered the course of the fleet to close. The 
three battleships and the Formidable bore down on the unsuspecting 
Pola, all of them in tense readiness for the inevitable action that 
loomed so close ahead. The range was closing rapidly when the 
Stuart, one of the screening destroyers on the starboard beam, made 
the Night Alarm. But even before it was reported in the flagship 
Admiral Cunningham himself had seen the cause of it as he stood 
on the Warspites bridge, straining for a first sight of the enemy. 

Crossing the path of the fleet from north to south he saw the 
heavy outlines of darkened ships steaming through the night. They 
were no more than two miles ahead, point-blank range for a 1 5-inch 
gun. The next three or four minutes were decisive, the whole fate 
of the night battle depending on the battleships being able to alter 
course to bring their guns to bear without being sighted by the 
unsuspecting Italians. 

At once the Commander-in-Chief ordered the fleet to alter 
course together to starboard and the 1 5-inch turrets of the battle- 
ships were trained round on to the new targets. The Formidable, 
unable as a carrier to take part in the forthcoming gun battle, drew 
out of the line to starboard to leave the arena free for the Warspite, 
Valiant^ and Barham. And as the firing arcs of the turrets were 
opened, allowing all turrets to bear, the destroyer Greyhound opened 
her searchlight. 

Its beam, piercing the night's darkness, lit up in vivid relief the 
unmistakable outline of an Italian io,oco-ton cruiser. It was the 
Fiiune^ and the range was 2,900 yards. For a second or two more all 
was silence, then the night was shattered by a full broadside from 
the Warspite, followed almost immediately by one from the Valiant. 
Over six tons of high-explosive shell ripped into the unhappy 
Fiume. In the tremendous explosion that followed, her after-turret 
was lifted high into the air and blown overboard, and she drifted 
away out of the line, a sea of flame. Half an hour later, still burning 
furiously, she blew up and sank. 


The Barham, last ship in the British line, had in the meantime 
sighted the damaged Pola and her turrets were already trained on to 
her. But as the Greyhound *s searchlight lit up the new enemy she 
shifted her aim to the leading ship in the Italian line and fired a 
broadside. This was the destroyer Alfieri^ and the Barham hit her 
along the whole length of the ship. She then shifted her fire to the 
next astern, the io,ooo-ton cruiser Zara, which by now was the 
target for all three battleships. She was hit at least twenty times in 
rapid succession by ij-inch shells and, like the Fiwne^ one of her 
turrets was blown bodily overboard by the force of the explosions. 
She, too, drifted out of the line, wrecked and burning. 

Barely five minutes after the first gun was fired the action was 
over. The battleships withdrew, leaving it to the destroyers to finish 
off the hapless enemy. This they did to perfection, their torpedoes 
sending to the bottom not only the Zara and the Pola the Fiume 
had already blown up and sunk but also the destroyers Alfieri and 
Carducci. At the end of their night action they withdrew to the 
north-east to rejoin the fleet, bringing with them as prisoners-of- 
war most of the crew of the Pola and as many from the other ships 
as they had been able to pick up out of the water. As soon as he was 
out of range of enemy aircraft, Admiral Cunningham wirelessed 
to the Italian Admiralty the position in which the action had been 
fought so that they could send out a hospital ship to rescue those 
who were still afloat in boats and on rafts. 

So the battle ended. The cost to the Mediterranean Fleet was one 
'Swordfish aircraft, flown by the gallant Dalyell-Stead who had hit 
the Vittorio Veneto with his torpedo* There were no other casualties 
and no damage. But to the enemy the cost had been heavy, with 
three fine modern cruisers and two destroyers sunk, and the fleet 
flagship damaged by a torpedo hit. 

Matapan, however, was more than a resounding naval victory 
won on the night of 28th March, 1941. It was a milestone along the 
path to British naval supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean, a 
supremacy on the maintenance of which the whole future course of 
the war was to depend. It is true, as Admiral Cunningham pointed 
out in his despatch, that the result could not be viewed with com- 


plete satisfaction since the damaged Vittono Ven&to had been 
allowed to escape, 18 but in the final analysis, viewed now through 
the perspective of the years, its result was sufficiently shattering to 
remove a challenge to our sea communications in that area that 
would otherwise have proved embarrassing in the extreme. At a 
moment when the whole of the Greek coastline was shortly to fall 
into the hands of the enemy, when the whole British position in the 
Middle East depended on retaining control of the sea routes in that 
area in order to prevent the enemy from breaking out of the ring 
that enclosed him, the Italian Fleet was so roughly handled that it 
never again ventured into those waters to challenge British naval 

The victory of Matapan rang round the world. From far and wide 
came messages of appreciation, from the War Cabinet, the House 
of Commons, and the naval staffs of many nations. To Admiral 
Cunningham H.M. The King telegraphed, "My heartiest congratu- 
lations to all ranks and ratings under your command on your great 
victory/' 19 


Chapter 5 


A HOUGH the victory at Matapan eased the situation in the 
eastern Mediterranean by discouraging any further Italian 
naval adventures in these waters, it did nothing to minimise 
the new problems which were arising farther west. Almost as the 
echoes of that notable battle died away in the darkness of a Mediter- 
ranean night, others shattered the stillness of a desert dawn. Rommel, 
moving forward cautiously on the Tripolitanian front with the 
object of seizing a local feature to improve his defensive position, 
suddenly found the road to Egypt opened in front of him. A mistaken 
report of an enemy approach had caused the premature destruction 
of the principal petrol dump for the British armour, and for that 
calamity there was no redress. Shorn of their motive power, the 
British tanks fell an easy prey to the advancing Germans and, seizing 
his opportunity, Rommel swept across the desert up to the Egyptian 
border. Tobruk alone remained in British hands, cut off by land 
and open only to supply by sea. 

So swift a reversal of fortune brought with it new and imperative 
duties to Admiral Cunningham's ships. On the Navy alone now 
rested the burden not only of maintaining those essential com- 
munications on which the whole security of the Middle East theatre 
of war rested, but also of disrupting those on which the enemy relied 
to maintain his new effort in North Africa. The strategical picture 
which faced Admiral Cunningham at this bleak moment in the 
campaign was to tax both his skill and his resolution to the utmost. 


There was already in operation the passage of troops to Greece 
and the reinforcement of Crete, both absorbing large numbers of 
ships. There was, at this time too, an urgent requirement to pass an 
essential convoy of fast merchant ships loaded with tanks and air- 
craft through the Mediterranean to Alexandria in order to allow 
General Wavell to return to the offensive. There was also an obvious 
need to bring as much disruption as possible to Rommel's supply 
line across the Mediterranean, a disruption which could be per- 
formed to any significant degree only by surface ships acting in con- 
junction with aircraft. This in its turn entailed the use of Malta as a 
base, and thus called for additional naval effort to supply and 
reinforce it, 

So, almost in snowball fashion, the naval dudes in the Mediter- 
ranean grew, to be augmented almost daily as the pattern of German 
intervention in this Italian sphere unfolded itself. With Rommel's 
advance to the east the flow of British and Dominion soldiers to 
Greece came to an abrupt halt. At the same time the Greeks failed 
to redeploy their Army as agreed, and the line they chose to defend 
could not be held. Retreat was inevitable, followed a few days later 
by a forced withdrawal from Greece as the German divisions swung 
down into the Balkan cockpit. 

The situation in the Mediterranean, which now called for new 
exertions on the part of the fleet almost to the limit of endurance, 
was eased slightly by the elimination of the Italian threat in the Red 
Sea. Mussolini's East African empire was crumbling rapidly as a 
result of the land campaign conducted by General Cunningham and 
the sea campaign by Vice-Admiral R. Leatham, Commander-in- 
Chief East Indies. One by one the Italian ports along the Eritrean 
coast were being put out of action and their complement of enemy 
ships sunk or destroyed. The finishing touches to the sea campaign 
were contributed in the main by a squadron of the Eagle $ Sword- 
fish, working from Port Sudan. They accounted for eight Italian 
destroyers based at Massawa, thus finally freeing those important 
waters, through which ran the main Middle Eastern supply line, 
from enemy seaborne interference. 

Although this East African campaign was somewhat overshad- 


owed by the more dramatic events which were taking place farther 
north, it does present an interesting little example of the influence 
which sea power can play on an essentially military operation. The 
ability to carry large numbers of troops by sea, to put them ashore 
in the required place, and to supply them with the means of carrying 
out their task had in this case proved decisive and had completely 
eliminated what might have developed, in the larger North African 
campaign, into an uncomfortable threat to a main artery of sea 

One immediate result- of the Red Sea campaign was to free three 
destroyers the Kimberley, Kandahar, and Kingston for work in 
the Mediterranean. This welcome reinforcement allowed Admiral 
Cunningham to release a striking force of four destroyers the 
Jervis, Janus, Mohawk, and Nubian to operate from Malta against 
the Axis lines of communication to North Africa, In conjunction 
with air reconnaissance by Malta-based aircraft they quickly justi- 
fied their new role by annihilating a Tripoli-bound convoy of five 
merchant ships escorted by three destroyers. In a brilliantly fought 
little action which accounted for the whole of the enemy, the loss 
to the attacking force was but one destroyer, H.M.S. Mohawk. 

Yet, welcome as was the news of this interruption in supplies to 
the enemy in North Africa, with its implied promise of more to 
come, it was little more than a drop in the ocean. Completely to stop 
this enemy traffic called not only for a far heavier scale of surface 
attack than could be mounted from Malta, but also for extensive air 
reconnaissance and for command of the air above the narrow waters 
between Sicily and the North African shore. Without those, success 
in attack on this supply shipping could hardly become much more 
than spasmodic. 

The importance of cutting off these supplies to the enemy was as 
fully appreciated in London as it was in Alexandria, but the geo- 
graphical and physical difficulties in carrying it out were less vividly 
apparent. In directives sent to Admiral Cunningham and General 
Wavell on I4th and i8th April, 1 the Prime Minister stressed the 
importance of this task. It was, he said, the prime duty of the 
Mediterranean Fleet to stop all seaborne traffic between Italy and 


(Above) The Battle of Cape Spartivento. Italian bombs dropping round the 
aircraft carrier Ark Royal 

(Below) German dive-bombers reach the Mediterranean, The Illustrious is hit 
and set on fire. Six hours later she reached Malta under her own steam. 

(Photographs: Imperial War Museum.) 

(Above) The Battle of Sirte. A British destroyer emerging from the smoke 
screen to attack the Italian fleet. 

(Below) Out in the open. A destroyer about to attack with torpedoes during the 
Sirte battle. The smoke screen can be seen in the background. 

(Photographs: Imperial War Museum.) 

Africa by the full use of surface craft, aided by aircraft and sub- 
marines. Heavy losses in ships of all kinds were to be accepted. The 
port of Tripoli was to be rendered inaccessible by bombardment 
and/or blocking, if necessary with a battleship on the active list. 
"The reputation of the Royal Navy", he wrote, "is engaged in 
stopping this traffic/' 

The First Sea Lord, following up the Prime Minister's directive, 
signalled to Admiral Cunningham that Tripoli should be subjected 
to a combination of a fleet bombardment and a blocking operation, 
using H.M.S. Barham and a "C"-class cruiser as blockships.* In his 
reply, the Commander-in-Chief protested vigorously against this 
proposed use of H.M.S. Barham, "a first-class fighting unit whose 
passing is liable to give an inestimable fillip to failing Italian naval 
morale". 3 In the face of Admiral Cunningham's objections, the 
Admiralty agreed to defer for the time being the blocking operation, 
but ordered the bombardment to be carried out. 4 

At dawn on 2ist April the first naval shells began to fall in the 
harbour area of Tripoli. All the major units of the Mediterranean 
Fleet took part in this operation, which achieved complete surprise > 
though the dust caused by a simultaneous attack from the air to 
some extent hampered the naval guns. Only one ship in the harbour 
was sunk and the amount of damage done to the port installations 
was insufficient to cause more than a temporary deky to the enemy 
build-up of essential supplies. An hour and a half later the fleet was 
on its way back to Alexandria, having suffered neither casualty nor 
damage. Nor was it molested on its way back to its base. 

Although at the time it was thought that Tripoli had been 
extensively damaged, the venture was hardly one which could be 
repeated with impunity. German dive-bombers were based within 
easy striking distance, and there was inadequate fighter protection 
for the fleet due to the lack of suitable aircraft in the Middle East 
theatre. It was unlikely that the Commander-in-Chief could count 
on equally good fortune a second time. Admiral Cunningham lost 
no time in giving the Admiralty his views on operations of this 
nature. 5 

The question of a repetition of the operation did not, however, 


arise at this moment, for by now the fleet was engaged in other, and 
more vital, activities. During March the Navy had carried some 
58,000 soldiers and their equipment to Greece; now, in April, it was 
to carry them back, though partly to Crete as well as to Egypt. 

Hitler, infuriated by the defiance of Yugoslavia to his demands 
for a free passage for his troops, had on 27th March ordered the 
"crushing" of that country simultaneously with an attack on 
Greece. 6 On 6th April, after a savage air bombardment of Belgrade, 
an overwhelmingly strong German force thrust its way southward, 
swamping Yugoslavia and outflanking the gallant Greek Army 
which had been engaged so valiantly and successfully against the 
Italians in Albania. It was all over very quickly. The Yugoslav Army 
was forced to lay down its arms on iyth April, and that of Greece, 
outflanked, hampered by lack of air support, and exhausted by its 
five months' struggle against Mussolini's soldiers, surrendered to 
the Germans on 2oth April in order to avoid the humiliation of 
submission to the Italians. 

The course of these Balkan events was not entirely unforeseen in 
London, though the speed of the collapse came as a surprise. The 
evacuation of Greece had been a topic of discussion in the War 
Cabinet as early as lyth April, and the final decision was taken on 
the 2isL 7 The operation, which was begun on the 29th, was given 
the code-name "Demon", and from the start had to face a severe 
handicap. This was the virtual destruction of the Piraeus, the port 
of Athens and the only harbour with facilities for carrying out a 
large-scale evacuation, by the earlier blowing-up of an ammunition 
ship, hit during the first German raid on the port. 

The task called for as many cruisers and destroyers as could be 
collected together and Admiral Cunningham denuded his battle- 
fleet of its destroyer screen in order to make available the maximum 
number possible. The conduct of the operation at sea was placed in 
the hands of Vice-Admiral Pridham-Wippell, with his flag flying 
in the Orion. Ashore in Greece Rear-Admiral Baillie-Grohman 
was in charge. 

In many ways Operation "Demon" was a repetition of the with- 
drawal from Dunkirk, though without the same advantages. Here 


the distances were far greater, the embarkation ports more widely 
separated and far less highly organised, base facilities virtually non- 
existent, and there was also no friendly fighter cover to hold back 
the onslaught from the air, as there had been over Dunkirk. In this 
way it was an operation even more hazardous than "Dynamo", but 
in its execution it was as triumphantly successful. The final total of 
men brought back from Greece was just over 50,000. But, like its 
predecessor at Dunkirk, the losses in ships were grievous. The effect 
of these losses was, in fact, doubly severe, for they were occurring 
not only in an area that was becoming increasingly difficult to 
reinforce in face of the still growing enemy air power in the Medi- 
terranean, but also in an area whose strategical importance was 
growing ever more apparent as the course of the war unfolded 
itself. A third reason, the forthcoming evacuation from Crete which 
was to call for yet greater efforts from the Mediterranean Fleet, was 
as yet not even dimly foreshadowed. 

For six days Operation "Demon" continued, and for the skill and 
coolness of the officers and men of the Royal and Merchant Navies 
it possibly surpassed even the Dunkirk evacuation. The navigational 
hazards, with ships having to work at night in inshore, unlighted, 
and sometimes inadequately charted waters, were extreme, but only 
one ship, the Ulster Prince^ was lost through stranding and subse- 
quent bombing. The work of the Navy was vastly assisted by the 
wonderful discipline of the tired, hungry, and footsore soldiers, who 
for three weeks had been retreating under the scourge of a merciless 
air attack. The despatch from Admiral Baillie-Grohman, command- 
ing inshore, described this military discipline as "magnificent". 8 

But withdrawals, no matter how gallant or how successful, do 
not win wars. The decision to go to the aid of Greece had been, and 
still is, a subject of controversy. It was, rightly and inevitably, a 
political decision, and there is no doubt that it produced a most 
favourable impression on the United States at a time when President 
Roosevelt was pushing through Congress his "Lease-Lfcnd" meas- 
ures, on which British hopes of victory largely depended. Nor was 
the intervention in Greece an entire loss militarily. It delayed 
Hitler's attack on Russia from 1 5th May, the date originally planned, 


until 22nd June, and it is at least arguable that those five weeks of 
delay, during good campaigning weather, may well have made all 
the difference between German success and German failure in 
Russia. On moral grounds, too, there can be no doubt that the 
decision was correct. A pledge to Greece had been given, and 
military expediency is ever a lame excuse for dishonouring an 

There are therefore some reasons for believing that this Greek 
campaign, in spite of its losses and its disastrous ending, yet played 
a not inconsiderable part in the course of the war as a whole. Its 
strains and stresses, especially on the hard-pressed Mediterranean 
Fleet, were severe, but that was only to be expected in any operation 
of this kind conducted under the hazards of enemy control in the 
air. The inevitable losses at sea were borne with the traditional naval 
fortitude, and Admiral Cunningham could content himself with the 
reflection that his ships had upheld the high traditions of their 
Service in particularly difficult and hazardous circumstances. 

Many of the troops brought back from Greece were put ashore 
in Crete, where it was hoped sufficiently to strengthen the island to 
be able to resist attack. Yet even here, in the three weeks of respite 
granted while the Germans prepared their attack, these hopes were 
dashed to destruction mainly by the chronic shortage of aircraft in 
the Middle Eastern theatre. The eighteen serviceable Royal Air 
Force fighters in the island on ist May had been reduced by enemy 
action to seven by the i9th, and these, with no replacements avail- 
able, were then withdrawn to Egypt. The island was thus left bare 
of all fighter cover apart from a tiny contribution which the Fleet 
Arm made from its own meagre resources and which in any case 
appeared late on the scene because of damage to the Formidable. 
It was hardly surprising, in these conditions, that the Navy's task 
of sustaining the defenders with reinforcements and supplies was 
performed with heavy loss. Nearly half the engineer field stores 
and field guns despatched to Crete were sunk en route, and of the 
fifteen supply ships which successfully reached Suda Bay, eight 
were sunk or seriously damaged in harbour by- air attack. 

As the sultry, summer days passed, the indications of an enemy 


attack became more apparent. Aircraft were known to be congrega- 
ting in large numbers on the newly-occupied airfields on the Greek 
mainland, and the scale of bombing attack on the island grew daily 
and nightly. Although the fight ahead was obviously destined to be a 
grim one, the strategical importance of Crete as an advanced base in 
the -/Egean from which to defend the sea communications of the 
eastern Mediterranean was so great that the War Cabinet ordered 
the island to be held at all costs. 9 General Wavell, the Commander- 
in-Chief, was hopeful. "I feel at least", he wrote, "that we will give 
an excellent account of ourselves. With the help of the Royal Navy 
I trust that Crete will be held." 10 

The German attack came at dawn on 20th May. As expected, it 
was completely airborne, the first time such a method had been used 
in war on a scale of this size. The first objectives were the airfields 
at Maleme and Heraklion, and the airstrip at Retimo. In the light of 
all existing knowledge at that time it appeared most unlikely that an 
airborne invasion by itself could succeed without seaborne support, 
and it was on the Mediterranean Fleet's capacity to destroy the 
expected reinforcing troop convoys that the hopes of the defenders 
lay. In spite of the total lack of air cover over Cretan waters, 
Admiral Cunningham was reasonably confident that this part of the 
Navy's task could be virtually guaranteed. 

The first naval forces, comprising nearly half the Mediterranean 
Fleet, sailed for the defence of Crete on I4th May. Though they 
carried out many sweeps in the surrounding waters there were no 
signs of enemy seaborne activity and the ships returned to Alexan- 
dria on the 1 9th, being relieved in Cretan waters by the other half 
of the fleet. These preliminary operations were no more than pre- 
cautionary moves in the battle and were unimportant, though it was 
during these operations that Petty Officer A. A. Sephton won the 
first Victoria Cross to be awarded in the Mediterranean Fleet since 
the start of the war. As director gunlayer of H.M.S. Coventry, he 
was mortally wounded during a dive-bombing attack on a hospital 
ship but continued to work his director with conspicuous fortitude 
and success until the attack was over. He died the following day. 

As the first enemy troop-carrying planes unloaded their living 

cargoes of parachutists over the Maleme airfield on the morning of 
20th May, British forces of cruisers and destroyers were to the east 
and west of the island, withdrawing to the southward after their 
normal night sweeps into the ^Egean in search of troop convoys. 
The main force, comprising the Warspite and Valiant^ with one 
cruiser and eight destroyers in company, was in support to the 
south-east. Patrols carried out along the northern coast of Crete on 
the following night of the 2Oth/2ist also sighted no shipping, and by 
dawn of the 2ist the various forces concerned were again withdraw- 
ing, satisfied that no seaborne reinforcements were making for 
Crete. During that night the enemy airfield on the island of 
Scarpanto, east of Crete, was bombarded by the destroyers Jervis, 
Ni^am, and Ilex, but without effecting much damage. 

So far, all was going reasonably well. Ashore the German losses 
were very heavy; they would have been immeasurably heavier had 
there been even one British fighter to take advantage of the easy 
targets provided by the slow-moving, troop-carrying aircraft. Pos- 
session of the airfield at Maleme was still in dispute, and elsewhere 
pockets of enemy troops were being held and mopped up. There 
seemed still to be a good chance of defeating the air assault provided 
that the Navy could guarantee that no enemy reinforcements should 
come by sea. 

The day of the 2ist gave a foretaste of what was in store when the 
JwnO) one of the destroyers of a force commanded by Rear-Admiral 
King whose task was to carry out the night patrol north of Crete in 
search of troop convoys, was sunk in a dive-bombing attack. At the 
time this force was cruising to the southward of the Kaso Strait, 
awaiting the hours of darkness before proceeding once more through 
the Strait for the night sweep from the eastward of Crete. Farther to 
the west, where a second force, under Rear-Admiral Glennie, was 
off the Antikithera Channel waiting to make a similar night sweep 
from the westward, the cruisers Ajax and Orion were damaged by 
near-misses, but not so badly as to be unable to take part in further 
fighting. Though these setbacks were not severe in view of the 
overwhelming and unchallenged strength of the German air force 
in the Cretan skies, they were in fact but the start of a stream of 


losses which was seriously to weaken the Mediterranean Fleet in a 
critical phase of the Middle Eastern campaign. 

On the night of 2ist May Rear-Admiral King's force proceeded 
through the Kaso Strait for their normal sweep into the ^Egean 
from the eastward and that of Rear-Admiral Glennie through the 
Antikithera Channel for a similar sweep from the westward. Both 
forces were ordered to patrol the northern coast of Crete during the 
hours of darkness and then carry out a daylight sweep up to the 
northward before withdrawing again to the south. 

Rear-Admiral Glennie's force was soon in action. Just before 
midnight the ships encountered a troop convoy composed mainly 
of Greek caiques, crowded with German soldiers. The destroyers 
created havoc in the convoy, sinking at least a dozen caiques and 
two or three small steamers. No enemy soldier reached Crete alive. 
Rear-Admiral Glennie, because of shortage of anti-aircraft ammu- 
nition, cancelled his daylight sweep to the north and withdrew 
his ships to the westward. 

Rear-Admiral King's force made no sightings during the night 
and at dawn set out on their sweep up into the ^Egean. The ships 
were sighted from the air and the inevitable attacks by dive-bombers 
followed. They were largely unsuccessful, though the cruiser 
Carlisle had her speed reduced to twenty-one knots through damage 
from a near-miss. 

As the ships proceeded northward a single caique, crowded with 
German troops, was sighted. It was at once sunk by the Australian 
cruiser Perth. Continuing their sweep up to the north, the ships 
sighted an enemy destroyer about an hour and a half later, and then 
a second. "While the Perth and Naiad were engaging the first, the 
destroyer Kingston closed the second, claiming two hits. Behind her 
the Kingston sighted, and reported to Rear-Admiral King, a large 
number of caiques, obviously a second troop convoy. 

But by now, because of the continuous air attacks, anti-aircraft 
ammunition in the squadron was running short and each minute 
was drawing the ships nearer to die German airfields on the main- 
land. Rather than jeopardise his whole force, Rear-Admiral King 
decided to withdraw to the westward, satisfied in his own mind that 


the enemy convoy was turning back. It did, in fact, turn back and 
its troops failed to reach Crete, but nevertheless it was a good 
opportunity missed of inflicting a very severe loss on the enemy, 
and one which Admiral Cunningham later deplored, for the convoy 
was of considerable size. 

In their withdrawal towards the Kithera Channel, where they 
were to join forces with the main support squadron, under Rear- 
Admiral Rawlings, the cruisers and destroyers of Rear- Admiral 
King's squadron attracted the attention of more and more enemy 
aircraft. The ominous black shapes of the dive-bombers seemed 
to hang poised in the sky, awaiting the chance to attack and almost 
entirely undeterred by the curtains of anti-aircraft fire thrown up 
by the ships. This was understandable, for so close were the 
German airfields in Greece that even seriously damaged planes had 
a good chance of reaching safety. Although the air attacks were 
incessant, only the Carlisle was hit, fortunately with little damage, 
and the Naiad's speed reduced to nineteen knots by near-misses. 

Shortly after noon, with the Naiad falling astern, Rear-Admiral 
King asked Rear-Admiral Rawlings for support as his own supply 
of anti-aircraft ammunition was almost exhausted. Although his 
own ships had had their trials and tribulations at the hands of 
the enemy's air attack, Rear-Admiral Rawlings brought his ships 
back at their best speed to bring aid to a hard-pressed comrade. 

As the two forces met in the Kithera Channel, Rear-Admiral 
Rawling's flagship, H.M.S. Warspite^ was hit by a bomb which 
caused a good deal of damage and reduced her speed to eighteen 
knots, and the destroyer Greyhound, detached from the screen to 
sink a caique, was hit and sunk while returning. But there was still 
worse in store. The cruisers Gloucester and Fiji and the destroyers 
Kandahar and Kingston were sent to pick up survivors of the 
Greyhound, a task made more difficult by the enemy's machine- 
gunning of the life-boats lowered by the rescuing ships. While 
returning at high speed on completion of their task, the Gloucester 
was overwhelmed in a mass attack, set on fire, and her upper deck 
battered into a shambles. To stop to pick up survivors under a sky 
thick with enemy aircraft was to court disaster, and all that could 


be done by the other ships was to drop all available boats and floats 
in the hope of returning later, when darkness would shroud the 
scene from the enemy's pilots, to complete the work of rescue. 
The Gloucester sank at 4.0 p.m. with a loss of 49 officers and 673 

Still the tale of disaster was not complete. As the Fiji, Kandahar, 
and Kingston made their way southward they were hotly pursued 
by enemy aircraft. Attack after attack was made on the ships, but 
by fine seamanship and accurate gunfire the enemy was held at bay. 
Over twenty separate bombing attacks were thus survived, and 
hopes of a respite rose as the daylight began to fade. Then, from the 
cover of low cloud, flew one Messerschmidt fighter. It swept down 
in a shallow dive and dropped its single bomb close amidships on 
the port side of the Fiji. The cruiser took up a heavy list, but though 
severely damaged was still able to steam at seventeen knots. Half an 
hour later another single aircraft swept down out of the clouds. The 
Fiji was hit again, her list increased considerably, and a little later 
she rolled over and sank. The Kandahar and Kingston, dropping 
boats and floats for the Fiji's men, continued to the southward to 
avoid a similar fate, and returned to the rescue when darkness bad 
fallen, picking up 523 officers and men. On completion of that duty 
they shaped course to rendezvous with Rear-Admiral King to the 
southward of Crete. 

It had been a bad day at sea, so bad indeed that the naval forces 
were, by order of the Commander-in-Chief, withdrawing to the 
main base at Alexandria. The day had only reinforced the painful 
lessons learned in Norway and at Dunkirk, that it is not enough to 
command the seas unless there is command of the air above the sea 
as well. The air battle had been lost by default before it had begun, 
through the withdrawal of the fighters on ijth May to a base in 
Egypt beyond flying range to Crete. Now, because the air battle 
had been lost, the sea battle and the land battle too were lost and the 
fete of Crete was sealed. 

It had been a bad day ashore in Crete as well. Gallantly as the 
soldiers there had fought and their actions had indeed been most 
gallant they could no more stand up to unopposed attack from 


the air than could the ships afloat. At dawn on the 22nd the vital 
Maleme airfield was still disputed territory, and the New Zealanders 
mounted a counter-attack to try to break the still tenuous German 
hold upon it. It failed, and the enemy, quite oblivious to serious 
losses, began to operate a "taxi" service of the big Junkers 52 
troop-carrying planes, each carrying a complement of up to forty 
fully equipped men. It was the turning of the tide; from that 
moment the Cretan battle became a rearguard action. And looming 
large through the cloud of battle there rose an uneasy question mark 
in the mind of Admiral Cunningham. It was the spectre of another 
evacuation, an operation that would call from the remaining ships 
and crews of the Mediterranean Fleet yet further demands on their 
endurance and fortitude. 

There was, however, one more drama to be enacted at sea before 
the curtain was dropped on this first phase of the battle. Steaming 
up from Malta to reinforce Rear-Admiral King was the 5 th Destroyer 
Flotilla, the Kelly, Kashmir, Kipling, Kelvin, and Jackal They 
joined at 4.0 p.m. and, with the coming of darkness, were detached 
with orders to patrol the waters off the north-western end of Crete. 
On the way the Kipling had trouble with her steering engine and 
turned back, but the defect was later rectified and Commander St. 
Clair Ford, her captain, decided to wait in the area south-west of 
Crete for the return in the morning of the rest of the flotilla. As 
events turned out, it was a most fortunate decision. 

The Kelvin and Jackal, after a search of Kissamo Bay, returned 
independently to Alexandria. The Kelly and Kashmir carried out a 
short bombardment of Maleme, heavily damaged two caiques, and 
at dawn retired at high speed round the western end of the island, 
also bound for Alexandria. And there the German bombers found 
them. The ships survived two attacks, but a third, consisting of 
twenty-four dive-bombers, swamped the defence and gave them no 
chance. The Kashmir was hit and sank in two minutes, while the 
Kelly, struck while under full helm at thirty knots, turned turtle, 
floated upside-down for a few minutes, and then went to the bottom. 
Seven miles to the southward lay the Kipling, awaiting the return 
of her flotilla mates. Commander St. Clair Ford had watched the 

German attack and was now closing at full speed to the rescue* In 
spite of six bombing attacks made on the Kipling she succeeded in 
picking up 279 officers and men, including the Captain (D), 
Lord Louis Mountbatten. With them safely on board she set a 
course for Alexandria, pursued by enemy aircraft. She beat off every 
attack and reached her base in safety, though for the last fifty miles 
she had to be towed in by the Protector, having run completely 
out of fuel. 

In London, remote from the overwhelming stress of unopposed 
air mastery, it was difficult both for the War Cabinet and for the Chiefs 
of Staff fully to appreciate the wellnigh impossible situation being 
faced in and around Crete. On 25th May Admiral Cunningham was 
told by the First Sea Lord that the Mediterranean Fleet "must accept 
whatever risk is entailed in preventing any considerable reinforce- 
ment reaching the island by sea, either by night or day". u Admiral 
Cunningham had, in fact, done just that, but it had already cost him 
two cruisers and four destroyers sunk, and one battleship, two 
cruisers, and four destroyers considerably damaged. And even as he 
was reporting that fact to the Admiralty he learned of further 
casualties. The aircraft carrier Formidable was hit twice and severely 
damaged after a Fleet Air Arm attack on Scarpanto airfield, and the 
destroyer Nubian had her stern blown off. 

Two days later, on 2yth May, the Prime Minister, in a signal to 
the sea, land, and air Commanders-in-Chief in the Mediterranean, 
said, "Victory in Crete is essential in this turning-point in the war* 
Keep on hurling in all you can/* 1 * Ag^in, just this had been done, 
with ships taking every advantage of the hours of darkness to land 
troops and supplies, but it had all been in vain in face of the German 
air power. "Such continuous and unopposed air attack**, wrote 
General Wavell, "must drive the stoutest troops from their positions 
sooner or later." 1 * 

But already it was far too kte even to attempt to retrieve this lost 
battle in Crete. Even as the Prime Minister's signal was befog 
deciphered in Cairo on the morning of 27th May, the inevitable 
decision to evacuate Crete was taken. It was confirmed later in the 
day by the Chiefs of Staff, 14 "saving as many men as possible without 


regard to material", and adding a directive to Admiral Cunningham 
* e to take any steps possible to prevent seaborne landings which 
would interfere with the evacuation". 

There were, on that 2yth May, some 22,000 soldiers still in Crete. 
They were 360 miles from Alexandria, and an attempt to evacuate 
that number in the face of overwhelming air attack at such a distance 
from the nearest Allied base was to present the Navy with new 
problems of incalculable difficulty. Worn, weary, and subjected as 
they had been to prolonged strain, the ships of the Mediterranean 
Fleet once more set sail for Cretan waters to bring back as many as 
possible of their military comrades. "I have never", wrote Sir 
Andrew Cunningham later of this interval between the first battle 
and the evacuation, "felt prouder of the Mediterranean Fleet than 
at the close of these operations, except perhaps at the fashion in 
which it faced up to the even greater strain which was so soon to be 
imposed upon it." 

It was originally planned for the embarkation to take place from 
four points in the island; Heraklion, on the northern coast, and 
Sphakia, Plaka, and Tymbaki, in the south-western corner. As it 
turned out, only Heraklion and Sphakia were used, and from these 
two ports nearly 16,000 troops were lifted, though unhappily not all 
of them were to reach Alexandria in safety. The German dive- 
bombers were still there in tremendous force to dispute with their 
attacks the sea routes around Crete. 

The Heraklion garrison, consisting of nearly 4,000 men, was 
taken off in the small hours of 29th May. At 6.0 a.m. on the 28th the 
cruisers Orion, Dido, and Ajax, and the destroyers Decoy ', Jackal, 
Imperial, Hotspur, Hereward, and Kimlerley, under the command of 
Rear-Admiral Rawlings, sailed from Alexandria, bound for Herak- 
lion via the narrow Kaso Strait at the eastern end of the island. They 
were sighted and attacked from the air during the northward passage, 
and the Ajax was damaged by a near-miss. She was ordered to 
return to Alexandria, but the rest of the ships succeeded in passing 
through the Kaso Strait during the dark hours undetected by the 
enemy's dive-bombers. They reached Heraklion just before mid- 
night on the 28th and the destroyers immediately entered harbour 


to bring the troops out- In order to make the southward passage 
of the Kaso Strait in darkness, the latest time for leaving Heraklion 
was 3.0 a.m. Shortly before this hour the evacuation was complete 
and the ships sailed for Alexandria with all the soldiers on board. 
Their troubles were just about to begin. 

The first casualty was the Imperial. She had been slightly damaged 
by a near-miss during the air attack of the previous evening and it 
was at this crucial moment, while the force was steaming at full 
speed to be clear of Cretan inshore waters before daybreak, that her 
helm became jammed. Rear-Admiral Rawlings was faced with a 
difficult decision, whether to stand by her in the hope of repairs 
being effected or whether to take off the men on board and sink 
her. He chose the latter and ordered the Hotspur to carry out the 
operation. As a result the Hotspur was dangerously crowded with 
over 900 men on board, though the sinking of the Imperial did 
mean that the squadron could maintain its full speed and would 
not be impeded by a "lame duck". 

This setback, however, had caused some delay and the ships were 
now an hour and a half late on their timetable. Instead of being 
through the Kaso Strait and well on the direct route back to Alex- 
andria by dawn, they were only just about to enter it from the 
northward as the sun began to rise. And there, silhouetted against 
the dawn and hanging in the sky like buzzards in search of prey, 
were the ominous black shapes of the dive-bombers. 

One after the other the attacks came in. The first ship to be hit 
was the Hereward, and she was so badly damaged that her speed 
dropped from thirty knots to less than fifteen. Again Rear-Admiral 
Rawlings was faced with a heart-rending decision, whether to leave 
her to her fate or to imperil all his ships by standing by her. His 
choice was the only one possible in the circumstances and when, last 
seen the Herewardvras making for the coast of Crete, only five miles 
away, her guns still blazing at the attacking enemy aircraft. She did, 
in fact, reach the island and succeeded in beaching herself, and most 
of her complement, with the soldiers she was carrying, survived. 

But the squadron's tribulations were not yet over. The bombers 
were following them down towards Alexandria, and ten more 


attacks were made before at last they reached the comparative 
sanctuary provided by friendly Fulmar fighters of the Fleet Air 
Arm, In those attacks the Decoy and Dido were both damaged, and 
the Orion hit on three separate occasions, the last time causing severe 
casualties among her crew and the soldiers on board. 

This was hardly an encouraging start to the evacuation, for of the 
4,000 men embarked some 800 had been killed, wounded, or re- 
landed in Crete from the wrecked Hereward. Yet a decision to 
continue the evacuation was inevitable, if only because, as Admiral 
Cunningham pointed out to the Admiralty, 15 "to leave men deliber- 
ately in enemy hands was against all our traditions". Yet so serious 
were the losses in this first evacuation attempt that even the Admir- 
alty was daunted. Admiral Cunningham, at this time, had much in 
mind the danger in which the Army stood. He also had in mind the 
centuries of tradition that lay behind the Navy and remarked to his 
staff that although it took the Navy three years to build a new ship 
it would take 300 years to build a new tradition. The Navy had 
always gone to the Army's help in similar circumstances, and 
Admiral Cunningham decided that the evacuation would continue 
so long as he had a ship in which to bring off soldiers. Such argu- 
ment was unanswerable and the decision was taken to accept the 
risk of continued losses in ships in carrying through the operation, 
no matter how hazardous it should prove. 

That it was a bold decision in the circumstances none can deny, 
for further heavy losses could well reduce the fleet to a state where 
it could no longer hold the sea communications on which the entire 
campaign in the Middle East depended. That it was also the right 
decision was proved not alone by its success but also by the many 
solid and strangely touching expressions of gratitude from soldier 
to sailor which this operation produced and which do so much to 
cement the Forces in resolution and fortitude. 16 With a signal to the 
fleet, "Stick it out, we must never let the Army- down", Admiral 
Cunningham sent his ships back to Crete to bring back as many 
more men as they could carry. 

For the next four nights Sphakia was the scene of embarkation. 
Surprisingly enough the enemy forbore to attack the area by nighty 


and the scale of air attack in daylight on the ships while on passage 
was much reduced, partly due to the fact that the Royal Air Force 
had fitted a few fighters with extra fuel tanks which enabled them to 
operate farther out to sea. H.M.A.S. Perth was hit and damaged on 
the morning of 3Oth May, and the destroyers Kandahar^ Kelvin^ 
Napier, and Ni^am suffered minor damage in air attacks, but no 
ship was sunk and no soldier lost. Close on 16,500 men were 
brought back in safety, and the only naval loss was that of the anti- 
aircraft cruiser Calcutta^ sunk on the morning of ist June when she 
was sent out from Alexandria to provide additional protection to 
the last force returning from Sphakia. 

Of the 32,000 British and Dominion soldiers landed in Crete, 
nearly 16,000 were thus left behind in killed, wounded, and prison- 
ers-of-war. Nearly 12,000 of them were prisoners. The total German 
casualties were about 12,000, the majority of them valuable, highly 
trained airborne personnel 

Of those left behind in the final night's evacuation from Sphakia 
some made their own perilous way back to the British lines. Perhaps 
typical of these is the exploit of Major Garrett, of the Royal Marines. 
He had originally gone to Crete with the units of a Mobile Naval 
Base Defence Organisation, a very highly trained Royal Marine 
body of soldier-technicians, to provide the defence of Suda Bay. 
Only a part of the organisation had arrived in the island, and on its 
invasion by the Germans the Marines had dropped their specialist 
duties to fight in the field. They formed part of the rearguard 
behind which the troops retired on Sphakia, and to their magnificent 
courage and stubborn fighting against great odds during the retreat 
many thousands of men owed their escape* They were the last 
troops in the list for embarkation, and none was able to reach the 
ships on the last night of evacuation. 

Major Garrett, finding a damaged landing-craft which had been 
abandoned and had drifted ashore, collected 4 officers and 134 other 
ranks all prepared to make a bid for freedom. They got their 
landing-craft afloat and on the first day reached the tiny uninhabited 
island of Gaudhopoula, twelve miles from the coast of Crete. That 
night, with the aid of only a small-scale map of North Africa, they 

left their island, bound for Tobruk 200 miles away. Their available 
petrol was exhausted the following evening, but hoisting a square 
sail made from blankets sewn together on a mast constructed with 
oars, they sailed on in the general direction of Africa. The unwieldy 
craft was held on a vague, southerly course by parties of men 
diving overboard and pushing her bows round to the required 

Seven days later, with the men now enduring the last extremities 
of hunger and thirst, their landing-craft grounded gently on the 
coast of Africa, a few miles east of Sidi Barrani and well within the 
British forward positions. In spite of their privations Major Garrett 
fell his men in and they marched, ragged but triumphant, to the 
nearest British unit, still with that military precision which is so 
justly the pride of the Royal Marines. 

The cost of the battle of Crete had been heavy indeed. Admiral 
Cunningham has recorded 17 that it was with a heavy heart that he 
took stock of his remaining resources after the battle. It had cost 
the Mediterranean Fleet, in killed alone, nearly 2,000 officers and 
seamen. Including those ships which had to leave the station for 
major repairs, the Fleet had lost two of its four battleships, its only 
carrier, four cruisers, one anti-aircraft cruiser, and eight destroyers. 
Other ships were out of action for various periods for less extensive 
repairs. "It is not easy", wrote Admiral Cunningham in his official 
report, "to convey how heavy was the strain that men and ships 
sustained. Apart from the cumulative effect of prolonged seagoing 
over extended periods it has to be remembered in this last instance 
that ships' companies had none of the inspiration of battle with the 
enemy to bear them up. Instead they had the unceasing anxiety of 
the task of trying to bring away in safety thousands of their own 
countrymen, many of whom were in an exhausted and dispirited 
condition, in ships necessarily so overcrowded that even when there 
was opportunity to relax, conditions made this impossible. They 
had started the evacuation already overtired, and they had to carry 
it through under conditions of savage air attack, such as had only 
recently caused grievous losses in the Fleet. It is perhaps even now 
not realised how nearly the breaking-point was reached, but that 


(Above) H.M.S. Ark Royal torpedoed. She sank later when almost within reach 
of Gibraltar. 

(Below) U.660 sinking after being attacked by the corvettes Starwort and Lotus. 
Her crew is swimming over to be picked up. 

(Photographs: Imperial War Museum.) 

(Above) An Atlantic convoy zig-zagging at sea. This photograph was taken from 
the Coastal Command escorting aircraft. 

(Below) The German battleship Bismarck firing at the Hood, a photograph taken 
from the German cruiser Prinz Eugen. 

(Photographs: Imperial War Museum.) 

these men struggled through is the measure of their achievement, 
and I trust that it will not lightly be forgotten." 

Yet the German victory was a hollow one* The yth Airborne 
Division, the pride of Goering's Luftwaffe, and the only one that 
Germany possessed, was destroyed in Crete. Certainly it won that 
island for Germany, but its destruction there lost to Germany the 
chance of gaining Cyprus, Syria, and Iraq, and of outflanking the 
whole of the Middle East theatre of war, which were the further 
objectives for this division, listed by Hider in his Directive (No. 
31) issued on 9th June. The cost of victory in Crete was indeed 
heavy in men; it was heavier still in the lost opportunities which 
followed the annihilation of the German yth Airborne Division. 

The loss of Crete, with all that it meant in the strategical picture 
in the eastern Mediterranean, was a sad blow to British hopes. It 
brought the main fleet base of Alexandria, and indeed the whole of 
the Canal Zone, within much easier flying distance of enemy aircraft, 
and in German hands it threatened the whole security of that vitally 
important area. 

But Crete, though it had loomed large in Admiral Cunningham's 
commitments, was by no means his only concern in the developing 
pattern of the war in that area. There was still Malta to be maintained 
and sustained; there was Tobruk, cut off by land, to be provisioned 
and supplied from the sea; there were ships to be provided to 
support the operations in Syria against the Vichy French; there was 
the Axis line of reinforcement and replenishment across the Sicilian 
narrows to be watched and attacked; and there was our own con- 
ti$ued build-up of strength in Egypt to be maintained. It was this 
last preoccupation which was of the most immediate importance, 
for an advance on land from Egypt into Cyrenaica would have the 
double effect of relieving the beleaguered forttess of Tobruk, with 
its consequent easing of pressure on Admiral Cunningham's hard- 
run ships> and also of driving back the enemy from the Egyptian 
border and reducing the land threat to the Canal Zone. 

This land operation, known as "Battleaxe", was a failure. It was 
launched on I3th June, but the new British tanksj ferried out 
through the Mediterranean with so much difliculty and dislocation 


of naval forces, failed to stand up to the mechanical demands which 
desert fighting made upon them. Two days after the initial advance, 
General Wavell's forces were back "practically to our starting 
positions with heavy loss of tanks". 13 The hoped-for relief of 
Tobruk had failed, and the fortress continued to depend on the 
"Tobruk run" for its daily supplies and sustenance. This arduous 
duty fell partly on the Inshore Squadron, made up of four destroyers, 
three sloops, two gunboats, and a number of smaller, auxiliary- 
vessels, and partly on the remaining destroyers in the fleet, all of 
which took a turn at this "Tobruk run". Fighter protection during 
daylight hours was provided by the Royal Air Force and the Fleet 
Air Arm, and for some months yet the sustenance of Tobruk was to 
call for extended efforts on the part of the ships of the Inshore 

Malta, too, presented yet another problem of acute difficulty. 
With the fall of Crete there were fears, natural enough, that the 
airborne experiment so successful there might well be repeated at 
the expense of that vital link in the defence chain. On 5th June the 
Governor of Malta, General Dobbie, sent a long appreciation of the 
position to the War Cabinet, 19 asking for substantial reinforcements, 
especially of fighter aircraft. At that date there were but twenty- 
eight Hurricanes in Malta and a few naval Swordfish aircraft, and on 
them was falling the heavy brunt of the continuous and savage air 
battle. And since it was from Malta that the main attack on the 
German-Italian supply route to North Africa must needs be based, 
its retention on that score alone was of tremendous importance. 
The Chiefs of Staff fully agreed to the need for reinforcement 20 and 
this, of course, meant yet one more important commitment for the 
Mediterranean Fleet and for Force H. 

The experiment, made after the batde of Matapan, of using 
destroyers from Malta to attack this route had been dropped because 
of the impossibility of operating surface ships from a base so 
systematically bombarded from the air. It was therefore left to the 
Swordfish aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm, to the bomber squadrons 
of the Royal Air Force, and to submarines of the loth Flotilla 
based there to make this route as hazardous as possible for the 


enemy* And nobly they did so. The losses of submarines in the 
clear waters of the Mediterranean were severe, but the price was not 
unwillingly paid. A heavy toll was taken of the enemy supply ships 
as they ventured out to run the gauntlet across this narrow strip of 
sea, and Malta's contribution to Rommel's loss of supplies during 
these months amounted to seventy-six ships of 350,000 tons. 

The two ends of this short enemy supply route were under 
constant patrol by submarine flotillas based on Malta and Alexandria, 
while a third flotilla, operating from Gibraltar, sought for victims 
off Naples, Genoa, and the Sardinian coasts. Still others found 
worthwhile targets in the ^Egean Sea, where they did much to 
dislocate the enemy's seaborne traffic between his newly-won out- 
posts in Greece and Crete and the Black Sea. But of all these 
operations, those directed against Rommel's direct supply line were 
of far the most importance, and the names of such submarines as 
Upholder, Upright, Urge, Unbeaten, Unique, and Ursula began to 
figure more and more in the official despatches as they took their 
toll of enemy supplies and reinforcements. The Victoria Cross 
awarded to Lieutenant-Commander M. D. Wanklyn of the Upholder 
after a particularly hazardous attack in which he sank the i8,ooo-ton 
Conte Rosso out of a strongly protected convoy, was a measure of 
the daring and skill of the intrepid young men who manned the 
submarines. It was their successes, more than any other cause, that 
prevented Rommel from exploiting the favourable position he had 
reached after his startling victories on land in North Africa. 

In spite of the defeat in Crete, in spite, too, of the severe losses 
in ships which that operation had entailed, the waters of the eastern 
Mediterranean were still being held by Admiral Cunningham's 
attenuated fleet. His few ships barred the way to a German descent 
on North Africa from their new Grecian bases, and prevented, too, 
the establishment of a second line of supply to Rommel's armies still 
poised on the Egyptian border. It was in the main hard, unspec- 
tacular work, but it preserved the tenuous line of sea power which 
still stood between Hitler and his ultimate goal 

Germany, her frontal attack across the eastern Mediterranean 
hamstrung through the loss of her yth Airborne Division in 


Crete, engaged instead in "back-door" efforts to escape beyond 
the net cast by British sea power in this important area. Nazi 
instigation and promises of armed support had encouraged the 
Iraq Government, under the leadership of Rashid Ali, to attack 
British bases at Habbaniyah and Basra, and to establish a block on 
the oil pipeline to the Mediterranean at Rutbah Wells. German 
agents were known to be entering Iraq from Turkey and Persia, 
presumably to prepare for the arrival of airborne troops, and Ger- 
man aircraft were engaged by R.A.F. fighters over Mosul and 
Damascus. Swift action by the Middle East forces, however, fore- 
stalled this threatened German move, and by the end of May the 
danger was finally liquidated when the discredited Rashid Ali fled 
from Iraq. 

A second, and similar, threat existed in Syria, where strong 
French forces, loyal to the Vichy regime, were beginning to co- 
operate with the Germans. Reports from several sources showed 
that the French airfields at Aleppo and Palmyra had been handed 
over to German control 21 and that French troops, led by officers 
with anti-British leanings, were massing on the Palestine border. 
A German occupation of Syria was obviously contemplated, and 
any firm establishment of the enemy there would both outflank all 
our Middle East positions and threaten the important oil pipeline from 
the Kirkuk fields. There was but one course of action, and British 
troops, with a large contingent of Free French under General 
Catroux, advanced into Syria on 8th June. At the same time ships of 
the Mediterranean Fleet bombarded transport and tanks on the coast 
road and engaged the enemy's gun positions, causing "considerable 
deterioration in morale among the troops exposed ... to this gruel- 
ling flank fire from the sea". 22 They also contained the Vichy French 
naval forces still at Beirut. It proved a longer operation than had 
been expected, for the French defenders fought stoutly, but in the 
final outcome, as in Iraq, the German threat was forestalled. Both 
these "back doors" were closed in time, and the Mediterranean link 
in the sea ring could still be firmly held. 

In their strategic review after the fall of Crete, the Chiefs of 
Staff had predicted that both Alexandria and the Mediterranean 

Fleet would be increasingly threatened by enemy air power. It was 
strange that the German command did not immediately seize so 
golden an opportunity of delivering a death-blow to Admiral 
Cunningham's ships. But the reason was soon to become apparent 
with electrifying force. For months Hitler's brain had been full of 
Operation "Barbarossa", and his way now was clear. Immediately 
after the Cretan campaign he had given orders for the Mediter- 
ranean air forces to be pruned severely in order to build up the 
necessary numbers to support his new venture. This build-up was 
watched by British Intelligence with something like amazement and 
almost disbelief, but as day followed day and the movement to the 
East continued, there came the moment when there could be no 
further room for doubt. 

On 22nd June the blow fell. At dawn that day German armoured 
divisions rolled out across the Russian frontier, and German aircraft 
flew deep into Soviet territory, blasting the Russian lines of com- 
munication with their bombs. The threat to Egypt from Greece and 
Crete receded under the physical demands of this new campaign, 
with which Hitler had now burdened the Axis war machine, and the 
lessened menace of the dive-bombers, though still not fully removed, 
enabled Admiral Cunningham to contemplate his still gigantic task 
with a more hopeful eye. As Hitler marched his troops into the deep 
unknown of the Russian wilderness, the Mediterranean Fleet, licking 
its wounds after the recent battles, returned to its task of holding the 
ring with a new determination and fortitude. 


Chapter 6 


"/ T"A HE U-boat", wrote Admiral Doenitz on ist September, 

1939, "will always be the backbone of warfare against 
England, and of political pressure on her." Admiral Raeder, 
the naval Commander-in-Chief, agreed with his colleague. "It is 
imperative", he noted at the end of 1940, "to concentrate all the 
forces of the Navy and the Air Force for the purpose of interrupting 
all supply shipments to Britain. This must be our chief operational 
objective in the war against Britain." 1 

British and American experts also agreed, When the staff con- 
versations between Great Britain and the United States, referred to 
in an earlier chapter, were held in Washington in February and 
March 1941, the joint delegations emphasised in their final report 
the cardinal and fundamental importance to the whole structure of 
strategic policy of the ability to use the seas for merchant shipping. 
In their view the only hope of Great Britain, and of the United 
States if she were drawn in, of continuing the struggle depended 
entirely upon retaining the command of the sea and the consequent 
flexibility which it brings in the ability to move men and munitions 
quickly and efficiently where they are most needed. The British 
Chiefs of Staff found no difficulty in endorsing that profound truth 
when they reported to the War Cabinet on the Anglo-U.S. Staff 
conversations. 2 

The United States had, by the end of 1940, already passed beyond 
the stage of neutrality into that of non-belligerency. In a nation-wide 


broadcast on the eve of 1941 President Roosevelt had gone even 
further, stating: ""We must produce arms and ships with every 
energy and resource we can command. We must be the great arsenal 
of democracy." The implication of that declaration was obvious, 
for an arsenal could be of little value unless it delivered its weapons 
to the seat of war. As American production grew, bringing an 
increasing flow of war material to hard-pressed Britain, the impor- 
tance of die transatlantic shipping routes grew with it. 

To Admiral Raeder his course was clear. Doenitz, commanding 
the U-boats, was perhaps too much wrapped up in his beloved 
charges to consider deeply the wider application of the attack on 
trade, but Raeder's view was more embracing. To supplement the 
U-boats he was prepared to send out, in addition, his major fleet 
units to prowl the ocean highways. Towards the end of the year he 
had four of these warships preparing for raider operations the 
Scheer, Hipper, Gneisenau, and Scharnkorst. Two more, the giant 
Bismarck, and the cruiser Prin% Eugen, were approaching comple- 
tion. From all these he expected a notable addition to the mounting 
total of tonnage sunk. 

The first out was the pocket battleship Scheer. She left Germany at 
the end of October 1940, and as she emerged into the Atlantic out of 
the Denmark Straits she ran straight into a convoy of thirty-seven 
ships homeward bound from Halifax. The sole escort was the 
armed merchant cruiser Jervis Bay, commanded by Captain E. S. F. 
Fegen. With reasonably good fortune the Scheer could well have 
expected to annihilate the entire convoy, but she met instead so 
dogged and spirited a defence by the Jervu Bay that she was 
baulked of her full prey. Ordering the convoy to scatter behind a 
smoke-screen, Captain Fegen steamed out to challenge, and to delay 
as much as possible, this powerful adversary. The fight could, of 
course, have but one conclusion, but the time gained by the Jervis 
Bay was invaluable. The short November day was already drawing 
to its close when the Scheer at last finished off her weakly-armed 
adversary, and the swift fell of darkness saved most of the convoy. 
Thanks to Captain Fegen's gallantry and self-sacrifice, thirty-two of 
the thirty-seven ships lived to sail again another day, and the 


posthumous Victoria Cross awarded to him nine days later was 
swift recognition of a supremely gallant act. 

The next warship to leave Germany was the cruiser Hipper. She 
failed to discover the Halifax convoy route, but on shifting her area 
of operations farther south made contact on Christmas Eve with a 
troop convoy bound for the Middle East. She shadowed the convoy 
at long range throughout the night and, at dawn on Christmas Day, 
closed in to reap her reward. 

She had, however, caught a "tartar". Troop convoys were 
invariably strongly escorted and this one was no exception. Three 
cruisers and a carrier were in attendance, and the Hipper was easily 
driven off, escaping in the low visibility of the Christmas dawn. 
But she had been hit and that, combined with machinery defects, 
decided her captain to return to Brest for repairs. She was the first 
major German warship to enter a French Biscay port. 

Next to erupt upon the North Atlantic scene were the battle-cruisers 
Scharnkorst and Gneisenau. They sailed from Kiel on 23rd January, 
1941, but were sighted by British agents as they steamed out of the 
Baltic. Within a few hours the information was in the Admiralty. It 
was at once signalled to the Commander-in-Chief, now Admiral Sir 
John Tovey, who had relieved Admiral Forbes during the previous 
month. The Home Fleet sailed from Scapa and took up a position 
south of Iceland to cover both exits into the Atlantic. In the early 
morning of 28th January the cruiser Naiad reported a radar con- 
tact of the two enemy battle-cruisers, and later caught a fleeting 
glimpse of them, only to lose sight a moment or two later in the 
heavy snow showers. Alarmed, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau 
doubled back at their maximum speed into Arctic waters, where 
they refuelled from a waiting tanker before making a second attempt 
to break out. This time they were more fortunate, and on 4th 
FdJhiary reached the North Atlantic unobserved, with designs 
upon the convoy traffic. 

Four days later they sighted the smoke of an east-bound convoy 
and closed for the kill. But, like the Hipper before them, they were 
to have an equally rude awakening from any dreams they may have 
had of a quick success. Among the ships of the convoy they recog- 


nised the unmistakable shape of a battleship. She was the 
acting as ocean escort for the homecoming merchant vessels. The 
two enemy ships turned away and made off at full speed before the 
RamlUes could identify them. In fact, she only sighted one of the 
two and reported her as a -ffz/per-class cruiser. 

Admiral Lutjens, in command of the German ships, lay low for 
a few days and then reappeared on the convoy route farther to the 
westward. Here, on the 22nd, he fell in with a number of ships 
recently dispersed from an outward-bound convoy. Five were sunk 
and then, worried by the raider distress signals which they had sent 
out, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau again disappeared into the blue. 

The two battle-cruisers next looked for victims on the Sierra 
Leone route, but once again were foiled. They found a convoy but 
it was being escorted by the battleship Malaya, whose aircraft, and 
later the Malaya herself, sighted and reported thenu Making use of 
their superior speed both the enemy ships got away. But their 
presence in the area was now known and they could remain there 
only at their peril. 

Admiral Lutjens took them back to the North Atlantic, and it was 
there that they achieved the greatest success of their cruise. On ijth 
and i6th March they sank or captured sixteen ships in quick suc- 
cession from recently dispersed convoys. But once again the broad- 
casting of raider distress signals from the ships attacked alarmed 
Lutjens, for he knew that they would not remain unanswered for 
long. They broke away from this profitable hunting-ground on the 
i6th and made for Brest. They were only just in time,for the Rodney^ 
attracted by the distress signals, reached the area no more than three 
or four hours after their departure. 

In the meantime, the Hipper had sailed from Brest on a second 
sortie into the South Atlantic. This time she was more fortunate, 
meeting a group of nineteen unescorted ships bound from Freetown 
for home. There was no fear of opposition here, and she sank seven 
of them before returning to Brest. There she was heavily attacked by 
British bombers, but escaped damage. She finally returned safely to 
Germany, making the passage of the Denmark Straits in safety under 
cover of thick weather that hampered all our patrols. 

None of these excursions by surface warships went unchallenged, 
and both the Home Fleet and Force H were out in force in the hope 
of bringing the enemy to battle. But in the immensity of the two 
Atlantic oceans in which they operated, the chances of encounter 
were relatively minute. All the advantages lay with the enemy, both 
through their reluctance to fight and through their superior speed 
which enabled them to escape when challenged. It was hardly sur- 
prising that none of them was brought to battle, though many 
thousands of miles were steamed in the search for them. 

Although these forays by the German fleet units had caused much 
concern and a serious dislocation of the normal convoy cycle, and 
although they accounted for more than a quarter of a million tons of 
shipping, they did not constitute the main threat to the essential 
supply shipping. It was the U-boats which presented the greater and 
more intractable problem. Already, in those early months of 1941, 
the correct answer to the U-boat threat was evolving, and was 
indeed recognised, though bedevilled to some extent by differing 
theories of interested authorities and to a much greater extent by 
desperate shortages of air and surface escorts. In its bare essentials 
the conduct of anti-submarine warfare was recognised as being very 
similar to that of anti-raider warfare; to avoid if possible the main 
concentrations of U-boats and, for the rest, to force the U-boats to 
come to those areas where the anti-submarine forces were at their 
strongest. And those areas were in the vicinity of convoys adequately 
protected by both air and surface escort, where the battle could be 
joined at odds most favourable to the defence. 

But in those early months of 1941, and indeed for many more 
months yet to come, the necessary surface escorts existed only on 
the slipways in the building-yards or as designs still on the drawing- 
boards. By herculean efforts, and by pressing every possible vessel 
into the pool, surface anti-submarine escort all the way across the 
Atlantic, and also all the way down to Freetown, was achieved by 
the summer of 1941. This, however, was done largely at the 
expense of a suitable reserve of ships for emergencies and also of 
adequate and intensive training in anti-submarine measures. Periods 
of rest, of refresher courses in tactical anti-submarine exercises, even 

of periodical ship maintenance and refit, had to go by the board at 
this difficult period, and one sees a picture of escort crews, their eyes 
red-rimmed with fatigue, haggard and unshaven, driving themselves 
to the very edge of endurance in their ceaseless task of shepherding 
their charges across the danger-studded oceans. It was a case of 
throwing everything into the immediate battle, and of looking to 
future production both to provide the required numbers of escort 
ships and enough spares to carry out the necessary specialist training. 

Of equal importance was air escort of the convoys* It was the 
combination of the two, around and above the convoy, that alone 
could sound the death-knell of the U-boats. As yet the full accept- 
ance of this doctrine, with all that it implied in concentration of 
effort, was open to some strongly expressed doubts by theorists who 
favoured a more "attacking" policy, as exemplified by bombing 
attacks on U-boat bases, by offensive air patrols over the U-boat 
transit areas, and by "hunter-killer" groups roaming the main trade 
routes in search of U-boats. As the battle developed, all these 
methods, with the exception of the first, had their successes, but they 
were all costly in terms of human and material effort in comparison 
with the rate of U-boat killing around the convoys. 

It is difficult, over so vast a stage as the seas which both divide and 
join the Empire, to visualise the immensity of this battle of the 
Atlantic. The term is in itself a misnomer, for it really embraced 
more than the two Atlantic oceans alone. The Indian Ocean, across 
which run the main sea routes to Australia, New Zealand, India, the 
East Indies, the Middle East, and the naval base at Singapore, was as 
important to global strategy as was the Atlantic, through which 
flowed supplies to the European and African theatres of war. The 
Arctic Ocean was the only highway by which supplies could be 
taken to hard-pressed Russia at the start of her great campaign, 
though later a second supply route was opened through the Persian 
Gulf. All of them demanded protection from the assault of the 
enemy, and although we have come to look upon this battle of the 
defence of shipping as "the battle of the Atlantic**, a more accurate 
description might well be "the battle of the oceans". 

In terms of miles this vast battle ran into hundreds of thousands 


each week, in terms of ships it meant as many as a thousand at sea 
on any one day, all of them to be guarded against the danger of 
swift, unseen attack. That was the yardstick against which it must 
be measured, a vast and ceaseless conflict conducted over millions of 
square miles of ocean. 

In this great battle, during these early months of 1941, the 
problems of air escort were, perhaps, even more pressing than those 
of surface escort, which itself was still far from solution. The new 
anti-submarine corvettes 3 were by now beginning to come forward 
in encouraging numbers, but they possessed neither the speed nor 
the endurance to perform the task as it needed to be done. It was not 
until the new frigates 4 larger, faster, and more seaworthy than the 
corvettes appeared on the scene that we had at last a ship which 
answered all the requirements of anti-submarine warfare. The first 
batch of them did not enter the battle until 1942. 

Progress in the provision of suitable air escort was slower. So far 
as aircraft were concerned Coastal Command was the Cinderella of 
the Royal Air Force, lacking at this time both a suitable weapon 
with which to attack a U-boat and also a suitable aircraft to under- 
take the task of convoy escort and support. The first lack was recti- 
fied by the modification of the naval depth-charge as an attack 
weapon from the air, but the second was a far more intractable 
problem. Range and endurance were the key necessities here, but 
the priorities of Bomber Command bore heavily on the fulfilment 
of Coastal Command's requirements. 

The provision of air cover over the convoys had, it was soon dis- 
covered, a profound effect on the U-boats. A convoy which had 
both air and surface escort was virtually immune from attack, and 
the regularity with which they escaped the fate of less adequately 
protected convoys could not fail to tell its story. What, in effect, air 
cover over the convoys achieved at this period of the war was to 
drive the U-boats farther to the westward, beyond the range of the 
shore-based air escort. It was in that area alone that they could 
cruise with any reasonable chances of success. 

By operating from airfields in Northern Ireland and on the west 
coast of Scotland, Coastal Command aircraft could cover threatened 


convoys to a distance of 600 miles out into the Atlantic, though such 
cover was limited to daylight hours. With the use of bases in Ice- 
land, a distance of 400 miles from that island could be covered. A 
little later in the year, following a conference of British and Canadian 
air authorities, nine very long-range Catalinas were transferred to 
the Canadian Air Force and escort could be given to a distance of 
600 miles from the Canadian coast* This, however, was the limit of 
shore-based escort, and another two years were to elapse before 
these distances could be improved. Even within these limits, short- 
ages in actual aircraft numbers made air escort, at best, no more than 
spasmodic, depending on variations in the number actually opera- 
tional at any one period. 

These limiting aircraft ranges from the various shore bases 
produced a gap in mid-Atlantic of some 400 miles, over which no 
shore-based aircraft could operate. This gap, of course, did not 
appear until the Catalinas began their operation from Canada later 
in 1941, but even before its appearance the reaction of the U-boats 
was significant. Almost without exception they established their 
patrol areas beyond the reach of the escorting aircraft, where they 
had only the surface escort to contend with. It was even more 
marked when, at last, the Canadian air operations began. They then 
left the Canadian coastal areas and crowded into the centre gap. The 
inference was obvious, and such measures as were possible were put 
in hand to dose the gap with ship-borne aircraft. But in the natural 
exigencies of war, and in the pressure of conflicting operational 
claims, the provision of escort carriers was a lengthy project and the 
time-lag before their appearance was to prove immensely costly in 
the tale of sunken ships. 

On loth December, 1940, the Prime Minister announced in the 
House of Commons 5 a decision of the Defence Committee of the 
War Cabinet to place Coastal Command under the operational 
control of the Admiralty. This move reflected Admiralty fears that 
maritime aircraft might be switched, without reference to naval 
requirements^ to other tasks in the air war. The decision took effect 
as from i$th April, 1941, and from the first worked happily and 
smoothly. What could, in other circumstances, have so easily 



developed into an inter-Service squabble was implemented in a 
spirit of co-operation and singleness of purpose that was to bring a 
high reward in the struggle that still lay ahead. 6 

Although, by April 1941, the Navy could thus appreciate the 
true answer to the U-boat threat, there was still a long road to 
travel before that answer could become fully operational. There 
were other schools of thought still to be convinced, other priorities 
clamouring for the limited supplies of very long-range aircraft 
needed to provide the all-essential air escort. As 194 1 progressed, the 
shortages of surface escorts eased as the war emergency building 
programme began to take effect, 7 but the numbers of suitable air- 
craft lagged alarmingly behind. Much of their air effort, too, was 
dissipated in the less productive forms of U-boat hunting, mainly 
in the shape of offensive patrols flown over the U-boat transit 
areas. The blame for this, of course, lay at least in part at the doors 
of the Admiralty, for although there was considerable pressure 
from the Air Staff for Coastal Command aircraft to be thus used 
"offensively", the Admiralty at this stage had the necessary powers 
to enforce their own requirements in the operational use of Coastal 
Command. It is but fair to add that there were still many authorities 
in the Admiralty itself who agreed with the Air Staff's diesis* 

It is interesting to record a recommendation of the Committee, 
set up to study the air aspect of the U-boat war, issued at this period. 
This set out : "The old principles of employing aircraft to gjve dose 
escort to convoys, whether threatened or not, should be replaced by 
a new conception of the use of air power in the war at sea. Hence- 
forth, the principal role of the aircraft should be offensive, to seek 
out and destroy the U-boats wherever they were to be found rather 
than to wait for them to come to us." It was an attractive theory, but 
was not borne out by results. And, moreover, in the true exercise of 
air power, who were the Admiralty to challenge the opinions of the 
chiefs of this new and rapidly growing Service? The new set-up 
with Coastal Command demanded infinite tact and a large measure 
of autonomy if friction were to be avoided. 

There were other pitfalls, too, for some too hasty travellers along 
this hard and uphill road which led towards Atlantic security. The 


long-term solution, recognisable even in 1941, was bedevilled by the 
intense urgency of the supply problem at this particular stage of the 
war. Time was an essential factor, and the trade convoy, if more sure 
of arrival than the independent ship, took on the average more than 
twice as long to reach Britain. 

It was to achieve the best practicable shipping delivery rate that 
the Admiralty had agreed, at the start of the war, to permit ships 
with a speed of fifteen knots and above to sail independently of 
convoys, relying on their speed to avoid attacks by wandering 
U-boats- These independents had suffered a higher percentage of 
loss than the slower convoys, but the increased speed of shipping 
turn-round provided by their swifter arrival was held to justify the 
losses. But at the end of 1940, when so much was still needed to 
sustain and supplement the national war effort, the War Cabinet, at 
the instigation of the Import Executive and against the advice of the 
Admiralty, decided to reduce the minimum speed of independently 
sailed ships from fifteen knots to thirteen. The desire, of course, was 
to speed imports by cutting down the inevitable delays that convoy 
brought in its train, and in its intention was a laudable effort to 
prosecute the receipt in Britain of those supplies on which the nation 
depended for its very life. 

The result was disastrous. As compared with ships in convoy, the 
loss rate of the independents of between thirteen and fifteen knots 
was three times as great. Admiral Sir Percy Noble, Commander-in- 
Chief Western Approaches and as such responsible for the opera- 
tional conduct of the Atlantic U-boat war, pressed strongly for a 
resumption of the upper limit in speed. In the face of the loss figures 
there could be no argument, and the fifteen-knot minimum was 
mntrodticed in May 1941. In terms of ships and of lives lost it had 
been a tragic mistake. 

Looking back across the intervening years one can discern, in the 
light of after-knowledge, the first gleams of light penetrating the 
darkness of thfe savage battle. The correct tactical procedure was 
emerging from the angry flow of confficting theories and the 
oppressive gloom of opposing priorities. But to those engaged in 
this stem struggle at that time all was darkness and these initial 

1 60 

gleams were not yet apparent. The monthly totals of tonnage sunk 
continued to rise to figures that in their immensity carried fore- 
bodings of ultimate defeat, and although U-boats were being sunk 
out in the Atlantic, still more were taking their place to swell the 
numbers lurking in the hidden depths of the oceans. No sign of the 
coming dawn was discernible in the darkness of }Jbe Atlantic night 

The desperate need called for desperate measures. On 6th March 
the Prime Minister issued a directive on the battle of the Atlantic 
which has since become famous. "We must take the offensive 
against the U-boat and the Focke-Wulf wherever we can and when- 
ever we can. The U-boat at sea must be hunted, the U-boat in the 
building yards or in dock must be bombed- The Focke-Wulf and 
other bombers employed against our shipping must be attacked in 
the air and in their nests. Extreme priority will be given to fitting 
out ships to catapult or otherwise launch fighter aircraft against 
bombers attacking our shipping. Proposals should be made within 
a week." 8 

It was a clarion call, and it came in a month dark with menace 
when merchant ship sinkings, by raider, by U-boat, and by bomber, 
totalled over one hundred ships of more than half a million tons* 

But not all was loss. In this same month of March the destroyer 
Wolverine and the corvettes Camellia and Arbutus, escorting an 
outward-bound convoy, attacked and sank two U-boats, one of 
which was later identified as U*4j. This was Gunther Prien's boat, 
and Prien was on board. He was one of the greatest of the U-boat 
"aces", a man from whom many of the U-boat commanders drew 
their inspiration. Ten days later another resounding success was 
achieved by the escorting destroyers of a homeward-bound Halifax 
convoy, during a wolf-pack attack, when they sank two out of five 
attacking U-boats. Those that were sunk were U*99^ by tLNLS* 
Walker , and 7. zoo, by H.M.S. Vanoc. The two U-boat command- 
ers were Otto Kretschiner and Joachim Schepke, after Prien the two 
most outstanding U-boat commanders in the German Navy andboth 
of them decorated by Hitler with the Knight's Cross and Oakleaf 
for having each sunk more than 200,000 tons of shipping. 

The loss of Prien, Kietschiner, and Sdbepke, all within a space 


often days, and all at the hands of convoy escorts, was a tremendous 
blow to the U-boat Command. Just how tremendous, however, was 
not yet apparent in the British Admiralty, for it had been impossible 
to gauge there the personal influence which these three men exer- 
cised on the morale and audacity of their fellow U-boat commanders. 
For perhaps the first time since the start of the war there was a feeling 
among them that the U-boat might not be entirely invincible, that 
the "happy time" had ended, that the defence was catching up, and 
that attacking convoys accompanied by battle-trained escorts was 
very different from attacking independent ships. There was, perhaps, 
a suspicion of a crack in the imposing edifice of U-boat mastery, so 
carefolly nurtured by Admiral Doenitz. 

In London, however, no sign of this could yet be appreciated. 
The elimination of these three "aces" was greeted with relief, 
though not with any thoughts that the burden of U-boat warfare 
would be materially lightened. The road ahead still stretched away 
into the future, long, black, and forbidding, and its end seemed very 
far away. The deaths of Prien and Schepke, and the capture of 
Kretschmer, may not have meant the turning of a corner, but at 
feast it was a bend in the road, and a bend in the right direction. 


Chapter 7 


t | \HE successes of the Scheer y Hipper^ ScAarnAorst, and Gneisenau 

I in their cruises against the AlKed seaborne trade so encouraged 

-i_ Admiral Raeder that he began to plan an even bigger and 

better operation on similar lines, to take place in April 1941. He 

had the Scharnhorst and GneLsenau sheltering in Brest harbour; at 

Gdynia lay the 4z,joo-ton battleship Bismarck and the io,ooo-ton 

cruiser Prin% Eitgen^ their trials completed and both now ready for 

their first operational appearance upon the stage of war. 

This new operation was to be the most important of all the 
German naval efforts and was given the code name "Rheinubung**. 
As originally planned it was to last three months, with the two 
battle-cruisers from Brest joining the Bismarck and Prin% Eugm as 
soon as they reached the open Atlantic. So powerful a squadron at 
large hi the oceans was confidently expected completely to paralyse 
British shipping in the Atlantic and to bring it almost to a standstill. 
Indeed, had all four ships succeeded in concentrating in the Atlantic 
they might well have achieved almost exactly that. 

Intensive planning went into Operation "Rheinubung". Before 
the warships sailed, tankers were despatched to strategic positions 
from which the raiders could refueL Independent merchant ships, 
disguised as neutrals, were placed in areas in which they might pick 
up useful information about convoy routes and times of sailing- 
Supply ships and weather-reporting trawlers were sent out to sup- 
port and aid the venture. An extensive wireless intelligence network 

was set up to try to plot the positions and courses of convoys and 
independent ships as they traversed the oceans. As little as possible 
was being left to chance, and Admiral Liitjens, so successful with 
the ScharnhoTst and Gneisenau, was again placed in overall command, 
flying his flag in the Bismarck. 

Yet chance so often disrupts the best laid of schemes. The 
Sc&arnAarsty refitting at Brest, was found to require more extensive 
repair than had been expected and was now not expected to be ready 
until the first week in June* During April the Gneisenau was hit by a 
torpedo from a Coastal Command aircraft and severely damaged. 
She moved into dry dock, and five nights later was hit four times 
during a raid by Bomber Command on the port. She, too, would 
not now be ready for "Rhemiibung"* Yet so eager was the German 
Navai Staff to act as early as possible that it was decided to send out 
the Bismarck and Prin% Eugen on their own, to be joined later by 
the Scharnhorst when her refit was completed. 

Admiral Tovey, in the King George V in Scapa, was acutely 
aware of the possibility of a further German break-out. He knew, 
of course, that the Bismarck and Prin% Eugen were now operational, 
and his experience with the previous warship raiders had shown him 
the general pattern of their break-out routes. His anxieties over the 
Scharnkorst and Gneisenau, which had for some weeks tied up most 
of the Home Fleet in a long, grinding patrol to the west of Brest, 
were temporarily allayed by the damage they had received from the 
air, and as a result he was able to strengthen his watch on the two 
northern exits into the Atlantic, the Iceland-Faeroes gap and the 
Denmark Straits. Both were constantly patrolled by cruisers while 
the Home Fleet lay at Scapa, admirably placed to cover the watching 
cruisers on the first signs of an enemy break-out 

Almost from the start the German plans went awry. The long 
refit of the Sckarnhorst ruled that ship out of the reckoning, leaving 
only the Gpdscnau to join the other two. Then came the damage to 
the Gneismxu during the April air attacks, bringing to a full stop the 
intention to send out the Brest reinforcement for the enterprise. To 
cap this tak of misfortune, the Prin^ Eugm developed an engine- 
room defect witicb delayed the date of sailing from the full moon 


period of April until the third week in May* This was a serious post- 
ponement, for by May there is little darkness in the Denmark 
Straits, through which the break-out was to be made. It may well 
be that this particular delay gave birth to a sense of urgency which, 
in the end, clouded Admiral Lutjens's judgment when things began 
to go wrong. 

Just before the two warships sailed from Gdynia they were visited 
by Hitler, who addressed the two crews. He gave them both a "pep" 
talk, in the course of which he prophesied that the United States 
would never enter the war. "You are the pride of the Navy," he told 
the men of the Bismarck y just before they sailed with high hopes 
of success. 

As the two ships steamed up the Great Belt and the Kattegat, 
fortune frowned on them once more. The German Admiralty, in an 
excess of security-consciousness, had cleared the area of all merchant 
shipping to prevent any leakage of information about the sortie. 
But at dawn on zoth May, to their chagrin, the Bismarck and Prin% 
Eugen sighted the Swedish cruiser Gottland steaming parallel with 
them in her own territorial waters. The secret was now out and on 
the following morning they were photographed in Kors Fjord, near 
Bergen, by a reconnaissance aircraft of Coastal Command, which 
had been sent out to search for them. The intelligence was signalled 
at once to the Home Fleet. 

Admiral Tovey ordered the Hood^ Prince of Wales^ and six de- 
stroyers to proceed to the south of Iceland to give cover to the two 
cruisers, Norfolk and Suffolk, which were patrolling the Denmark 
Straits. That left only the flagship, the King George V? four cruisers, 
and three destroyers at Scapa, and they were brought to short notice 
to proceed to sea. Two other capital ships, the battle-cruiser Repulse 
and the aircraft carrier Victorious^ had been allocated to the escort 
of a troop convoy, but the Admiralty cancelled this arrangemeat 
and placed these two additional ships at the disposal of^the Coia- 
mandar-in-Chief. They too were brought to short notice. 

The next essential step was to discover the day of departure of the 
enemy ships from Bergen. Air patrols were flown across the North 
Sea throughout the zznd, but cloud was down to 200 feet and the 


Norwegian coast was wrapped in fog. All was uncertainty, and the 
one vital piece of information that would provide the signal for the 
start of the operation was missing* As the negative reports from the 
air patrols came in throughout the day, the Commanding Officer of 
the Royal Naval Air Station at Hatston, in the Orkneys, took mat- 
ters into his own hands. He despatched a naval aircraft with a most 
experienced observer 1 across the North Sea with instructions to 
comb the Bergen fjords* All depended on the success of its mission. 
The aircraft was heavily engaged as it crossed the Norwegian coast, 
but the pilot flew low up and down the Bergen fjords, searching 
for the quarry* The fjords were empty. As the aircraft flew home- 
wards it signalled the vital information back to base and at 8.0 p.m. 
it was in the hands of the Commander-in-Chief. Two and three- 
quarter hours later the Home Fleet was at sea and the operation 
had begun. 

Throughout the night and all next day the Home Fleet steamed 
to the west-north-westward into a steep, rising sea. The weather 
was dosing in and the gusty wind threatened a westerly gale later. 
As the ships made their way out into the Atlantic their bows were 
flinging the spray high over their forecastles. 

Far away to the north of Iceland the weather was calmer, though 
with patches of thick mist hanging over the water. Snow clouds 
threatened to reduce visibility to a matter of a few yards. This was 
just the sort of weather for which Admiral Liitjens was hoping to 
aid him in his break-out. As he rounded the north coast of Iceland 
his meteorological experts forecasted that it would be thick in the 
Denmark Straits, with visibility less than 400 yards. He decided to 
take the plunge. 

His weather experts were wrong in their forecast. The centre of 
the Straits was, indeed, shrouded in dense mist, but dose to the ice 
edge^ the track that Admiral Liitjens had selected, was clear with 
visibility op to eight or ten miles* Yet the German Admiral held on 
to bis chosen course, confident that there were no British ships in the 
vicinity.* It was therefore with considerable chagrin that, at 8.15 
P.XBL, he received a report from the Prin^ Eugen's look-out that a 
three-funnelled cruiser was in sight at a range of just over six miles. 

1 66 

This was H.M.S. Norfolk. In point of fact, the Bismarck and 
Prin$ Eugen had been sighted an hour earlier by H.M.S. Suffolk. 
Her enemy report had not got through to the Commander-in- 
Chief, but it had reached the Norfolk and she had closed to make 
contact. As she came in sight of the German ships she was greeted 
with a few salvoes. 

By 8.30 p.m. the Norfolk's enemy report was being decoded in 
the King George V. It showed the enemy to be about 600 miles to 
the north-westward of the Commander-in-Chief, and he altered the 
course of the fleet to that bearing and increased speed to twenty- 
seven knots. H.M.S. Hood, which with the Prince of Wales had been 
earlier despatched to the Iceland area, had already received the 
information, for she had taken in the SuffolKs sighting report. She 
too turned to the north-west and increased speed. She was 300 
miles from the enemy and the respective courses were converging. 
The two forces should meet in the morning. 

Admiral Liitjens was confident that he could shake off the pursuit 
by bursts of high speed, sharp alterations of course, and the use of 
smoke. But in spite of all he could do, the Norfolk and Suffolk hung 
on to him, reporting his movements with what appeared to the 
Germans to be uncanny accuracy. This, of course, was ship radar, 
and it came as a complete and shattering surprise to the German 
Admiral. All the German intelligence reports had until then indicated 
that it was not yet fitted in British ships; in their own it was used 
only for gunnery ranging. - 

Admiral Lutjens was now faced with a difficult decision, whether 
to turn back in the face of this unexpected threat or whether to 
continue on his course and chance an encounter with the British 
Fleet. He decided to go on under the erroneous belief that the Home 
Fleet was still at anchor in Scapa Flow.* 

The Norfolk and Suffolk hung on grimly throughout the night, 
shadowing just beyond extreme gun range and reporting ervery 
alteration of course. Throughout the night, too, the Hood and the 
Prince of Woks made ground steadily to the north-west, closing the 
enemy. Farther away still the Comraander-in-Chief, with the King 
George V y Repulse, and J^ictorious, was steering a course which, he 


hoped, would bring him into contact with the Bismarck and 
Eugen later in the day. 

As the two enemy ships emerged into the Atlantic they met the 
force of the wind and the heavy swell that was running. The Norfolk 
and Suffolk were still in contact, sometimes losing sight of their 
gigantic quarry in the rain and falling snow, but always picking her 
up again by radar. The Arctic twilight was beginning to grow into 
day, and as a result the shadowing becoming easier. At 3.30 a.m. 
on the 24th they had a clear sight of her, twelve miles ahead, still 
steaming at twenty-eight knots. The sighting signal went out, and 
an hour and a quarter later the Suffolk intercepted a signal from the 
destroyer Icarus, escorting the Hood. It gave her position as some 
distance astern of the Norfolk? and was the first intimation to 
Rear-Admiral Wake-Walker, commanding the cruisers in the 
Denmark Straits, that the Hood and the Prince of Wales were in his 

In the Hood and the Prince of Wales the ships* companies were 
already at action stations. Vice-Admiral Holland, flying his flag in 
the HooJL^ intended first to make contact with the Norfolk and Suffolk 
and then engage the enemy, concentrating the fire of the two capital 
ships on the Bismarck and that of the two cruisers on the Prin^ 
Eugen. The northern day dawned with a leaden sky and a strong, 
freshening wind that whipped the tops of the waves into foam. At 
5*15 a.m. smoke was sighted on die starboard quarter. It was 
quickly identified as the Norfolk. The daylight of the northern 
morning increased rapidly, and twenty minutes later, at 5.35 a.m. 7 
the loom of a large ship could be seen on the north-western horizon. 
A few moments later it was recognised as the Bismarck, with the 
/yfcf Eugen ahead of her. Although the Norfolk and Suffolk were 
sriH too fer away to join action with the enemy, Vice-Admiral 
Holland's reaction: was immediate. Two minutes after sighting the 
Bismarck the flag signal "Blue pendant four" 4 was flying from the 
Hoof* yankrm, and she and the Prince of Woks turned 40 degtees 
together to starboard towards the enemy. 

At 5.52 ajm. the Hood fired her first salvo at a range of 25,000 
yards. Thirty seconds later the Prince of Wales also opened fire. 


The enemy replied two minutes later. Almost at once both sides 
were hitting each other. 

The Hood, laid down during the first war with Germany and 
launched in 1919, was an old ship. Being a battle-cruiser she was 
lightly armoured, and her magazines were but scantily protected. 
A fire was started by a hit near her mainmast, which spread until the 
whole of the midship section seemed to be in flames. She was still 
firing and had, in fact, a signal flying ordering a turn of 20 degrees 
to port when suddenly, exactly at 6 a.m., she was hit again by 
plunging fire from the JBismarcL A shell exploded in "X" magazine 
and she was torn asunder by a tremendous explosion. Her bows 
reared up into the air and then sank vertically. For a minute or two 
her stern remained afloat, hidden in a vast pillar of smoke, then it, 
too, sank. Three minutes after the explosion nothing remained of 
the great battle-cruiser but a huge pall of smoke that drifted away 
across the waters of an angry sea. 

The Prince ofWales^ following astern afthtffood, was forced to 
alter course to starboard to avoid the wreckage of Vice-Admiral 
Holland's flagship. This brought her nearer to the enemy ships, and 
both of them concentrated on her at a range that closed to 14^00 
;pnfe.ShewasHtbythe^raorr^ Unlike 

tfae Hood she was a new ship, so new indeed that she had not yet 
had time to "work up" into full operational efficiency* She was also 
subject to "teething" troubles with her turret machinery, and as 
she turned away behind a smoke-screen her after turret jammed, 
putting four of her big guns out of action for two hours.* 

But the Bismarck had been hit three times by the Prince qfJPaks 
during the action, and one of the hits was to play a vital part in the 
later stages of the operation. The shell passed right through the 
ship, holing two oil tanks. The loss of this oil was not unduly 
important, but what was far more serious was that the oil in the 
tanks forward of the damage, a thousand tons of it, could oat be 
used as the suction valves were inaccessible in a flooded compart- 
ment.* It was this feet that caused Admiral Lutjens to signal home 
at 8 ajo* that he was going to abandon the operation and make 
for the Biscay port of St. Nazaire. 


Even as she made her signal the forces that were to encompass 
her destruction were gathering. The Commander-in-Chief, still 360 
miles*fcway to the south-east, was steaming at high speed on a con- 
verging course. The battleship Rodney, escorting the liner Britannic, 
was ordered to leave her charge and steer west to close the Bismarck. 
The RamttUcs, with a homeward-bound convoy, was told to place 
herself to the westward of the Bismarck to guard against a break in 
that direction, and the Revenge was sailed from Halifax for a similar 
purpose. The cruiser Edinburgh, patrolling in mid-Atlantic in search 
of German shipping, was ordered to close and assist in the task of 
shadowing. Admiral Somerville, commanding Force H, was sum- 
moned from Gibraltar with the battle-cruiser Renown and the carrier 
Ark RoyaL He sailed within an hour of receiving the signal from the 
First Sea Lord, and in his hands he carried the ultimate fate of the 
Bismarck. The net was closing. 

After the sinking of the Hood, the Prince of Wales came under 
command of Rear-Admiral Wake-Walker in the Norfolk, and they 
and the Sztffblk settled down to shadow the enemy. Throughout the 
whole of this day of the 24th they kept in touch, and nothing that 
the Bismarck could do could shake them off. There was a brief 
flurry of action shortly before 7.0 p.m., when the German battleship 
apparently tried to waylay the Suffolk in the mist, but there were no 
bits on either side and the ships settled down again into their long, 
stern task of shadowing. 

It was just before this incident that Admiral Liitjens tried to use 
the Prin^ Eugtn as a lure to draw off the shadowers* By signal to her 
captain he proposed the Bismarck turning away to the westward in a 
rain squall while the Prin% Eugen carried straight on. Captain 
Brinckinann, of the Prin% Eugen, composed a long signal of protest 
against this decision/ but before he could transmit it a suitable rain 
squall gave the Bismarck the opportunity she required. She dis- 
appeared from the Prin^ Eugen 9 $ view, leaving the unhappy Brinck- 
mann alone in a hostile ocean. 

The ruse did not work out as Admiral Liitjens 'had hoped. The 
fei&fiil Siffilk, still in touch, followed the Bismarck and continued 
accurately to report her every movement. It was at this juncture that 


the Prin^ Eugen disappeared from the story. She continued to the 
southward, just managed to reach an oiler in time, and then, deciding 
that discretion was the better part of valour, shaped a course for the 
Bay of Biscay and Brest. 

At 3.0 p.m. on the 24th the Commander-in-Chief was still some 
270 miles from the flying Bismarck, steering a converging south- 
westerly course that would bring him in contact with the enemy, 
provided that both his and the JSismarck's courses were held, at 
about 9 a.m. the following day. Yet, in spite of the distance 
that still separated them, he had in his hand a weapon with which 
he could strike a blow. He detached the carrier Victorious to a 
position from which she could launch a torpedo bombing attack 
and at 10 p.m. that night the Victorious turned into the wind and 
flew offnine Swordfish, led by Lieutenant-Commander E. Esmonde. 
The weather was as bad as it could be, with a dark, foaming sea 
sweeping down from the north-westward. The Swordfish with their 
heavy loads climbed slowly into the darkness, obscured by clouds 
and rain squalls. 

At about 11.30 p.m. the leading aircraft picked up two ships on 
her radar. They were the Prince ofWdes and Norfolk, still in con- 
tact. The Norfolk directed them on to the Bismarck, and just befote 
midnight they broke through the cloud to deliver their attack. 
Unfortunately, the ship below them when they broke through was 
not the Bismarck, but an American coastguard cutter* This lost 
for them the element of surprise, for they were sighted by the 
Bismarck. Nevertheless, their attack was pressed home with great 
gallantry. One torpedo hit the enemy on the starboard side 
abreast the bridge, but did no damage beyond shaking the ship 

All now seemed set fair for battle, with the Home Fleet closing 
in steadily on the enemy. There was, however, trouble in store* 
The Sitffolk, still holding the Bismarck with her radar, was zigzag- 
ging to avoid possible attack by U-boats. At 3.6 a^n. on the 25th she 
obtained a contact and began an outward zig of 30 degrees to port. 
Ten minutes later she turned back, expecting to regain contact on 
reaching radar range again. But on her return there was no answer- 


ing echo in her searching beam. The Bismarck had disappeared into 
the darkness. 

It was thought that she had most probably broken away to the 
westward, and it was in that quarter that the search was now directed. 
It was led by the Suffolk, to the south-westward., the Norfolk follow- 
ing in the same direction an hour or two later. As soon as it was 
daylight the Victorious flew an air search to the north-westward on 
instructions from the Commander-in-Chief, but the wind-swept 
sea in that quarter was empty. 

The Bismarck had, in fact, turned to the westward, but she had 
continued her turn right round, slipped unseen under the sterns of 
her shadowers, and was now on a direct south-easterly course for 
St. Nazaire. The closing course steered by the Home Fleet had thus 
become an opening course, and each hour that passed made the 
distance between the opposing forces greater instead of less. 

Admiral Tovey was thus faced that morning with a decision of 
great perplexity. He knew that the Bismarck had been hit, first by 
the Prince of Wales and then by a torpedo from one of the Swordfish 
from the Victorious, but he had no indication as to the extent of the 
damage. He himself thought it likely that she would try to make for 
harbour, but he rightly felt that it was the greater danger against 
which he had to guard. And that greater danger was die peril in 
which the Atlantic convoys would stand should the Bismarck con- 
tact one of her oilers and, thus replenished, continue her cruise 
against the all-essential trade. So it was to the westward that he 
concentrated his attention, for it was so obviously in that quarter 
that the greater danger ky. 

It was a little later that morning that Admiral Lutjens made his 
great mistake. If he had kept quiet he might possibly have succeeded 
in reaching St Nazaire unscathed; instead, he transmitted a long 
wireless message to Germany giving an account of his action with 
tbe Hood on the previous morning* In the British Admiralty, of 
course, as soon as it was known that the Bismarck was at sea, every 
wirdess direction-finding station in the Empire had been instructed 
to keep watch on her frequency, and this was their great chance to 
play 3 part in the chase. 


As the bearings came in by signal they were plotted in the Admir- 
alty and then signalled out individually to the Commander-in-Chief 
under the erroneous belief that some of the ships in the fleet were 
fitted with direction-finding receivers and would themselves have 
taken bearings. As soon as they were received in the flagship they 
were plotted on the chart- Unfortunately it was a navigational chart, 
not the special kind for wireless bearings, and it gave a position too 
far to the north, making it appear that the Bismarck was breaking- 
back towards the North Sea. 

On that assumption the Commander-in-Chief redisposed his 
forces, altering course to the north-eastward. He broadcast to all his 
ships the estimated position 8 of the enemy, and the fleet settled 
down to the chase again in that quarter. 

The bearings plotted in the Admiralty, however, gave a dear 
indication that it was a Biscay port to which the Bismarck was 
making. The First Sea Lord signalled to Force H, which was not 
under the direct command of Admiral Tovey, to act on that assump- 
tion. H.M.S. Rodney, which as yet had not joined the Comnaander- 
in-Chief, received similar instructions. Finally, after much anxious 
thought in the Admiralty, Admiral Tovey was informed that the 
appreciation there was that Bismarck was making for the west coast 
of France.* The Home Fleet at last turned towards the Bay of Biscay, 
but the precious hours gained by the Bismarck had given her a flying 
start. The British ships -frere now about 100 miles astern of their 
quarry and, moreover, were getting low in oil. Only Force H, 
coming up from Gibraltar, was well placed to intercept, though the 
old battle-cruiser Renown, in which Admiral Somerville was flying 
his flag, was no match for the brand-new Bismarck with her heavy 
armour and her powerful guns. Admiral Somerville, however, also 
had the carrier Ark Royal under his command, and her Swordfish 
squadrons were well trained and old hands at the game. 

The day of 26th May was the day of the airmen. Just before 
10.30 a.iEu a Coastal Command CataBna, searching from Lough 
Erne, broke suddenly through low cloud to sight the massive battle- 
ship below her. She was badly shot up by extremely accurate gun- 
fire but, although too damaged to shadow, she survived the attack. 


Within a matter of minutes her sighting report was bringing a 
new flame of hope into a situation that was, through lack of positive 
news, beginning to grow ever more hopeless. 

The Bismarck had been found and the hunt was on again. 

Twelve minutes later the Ark Royal's Swordfish found her, in- 
dependently of the Catalina's sighting report which, of course, 
they could not receive on their sets. They were flying searches ahead 
of Force H, and once they had the Bismarck in view they never let 
her go. Throughout the day they kept in contact, and as the after- 
noon wore on the Ark Royal zt last reached the position from which 
she could fly off a striking force of torpedo bombers. She ranged 
her Swordfish on deck, armed with torpedoes, and just before 3.0 
p.m., in a heavy sea and under a lowering, overcast sky, they flew 
off the heavily pitching and spray-swept deck in search of the enemy. 

In the meantime other steps had been taken to keep the Bis- 
marck in sight. The cruiser Sheffield, of Force H, was detached to 
make contact and shadow. The 4th Destroyer Flotilla, detached 
from a convoy and ordered to join the Home Fleet to replace 
Admiral Tovey's own screen which had been forced to leave him 
through lack of fuel, were also steering for the Bismarck. Captain 
Vian had intercepted the Catalina's sighting report in the morning 
and had decided to take his destroyers direct to the scene, "knowing 
that the Commander-in-Chief would wish me to steer to intercept 
the enemy 1 *. 19 It was a bold decision that was to prove of great worth 
that night and the following morning. 

Neither the Sheffield nor Captain Vian's destroyers were yet in 
touch with the enemy when the first striking force of Swordfish 
arrived overhead. The pilots had not been informed that the Sheffield 
was in the vicinity, and when they picked up a ship in their radar 
sets it was natural for them to assume that it was the Bismarck. 
They dived down through the low doud and launched their tor- 
pedoes at the wrong ship. The Sheffield, realising what had happened, 
increased to full speed and took violent avoiding action, fortunately 
with complete success, and was perhaps slightly mollified by a 
signal from the last of the Swordfish, "Sorry for the kipper." 
The disappointment in the Ark Royal was intense. So much had 

been hoped for from this attack from the air, so much had de- 
pended upon its success. Unless the Bismarck could somehow be 
stopped she would get clear away and the Hood would go 

The weather was deteriorating rapidly. The threatened gale had 
at last unleashed its full force over the eastern Atlantic, and towering 
seas were making the Ark Royal pitch through a height of from 
fifty to sixty feet. It was from this heaving flight deck that the 
Swordfish, hastily refuelled and rearmed, took to the air for a second 
shot at the flying enemy. The ultimate result now lay in their hands. 
This time the pilots were told to contact the Sheffield first, which 
would then direct them on to the true target. 

The Bismarck, steaming steadily south-eastward, was now pass- 
ing through historic waters. Down the years they had echoed to the 
guns of British fleets, led by Hawke and Anson and Keppel. They 
had seen the ships of Boscawen, Cornwallis, and Nelson* Many 
French and Spanish warships had succumbed in these waters to 
British naval guns; now a German man-of-war was shortly to 
experience the same dismal fate. 

The Ark Royal's Swordfish made contact with the Sheffield at 
about 8.30 p.m. and were directed by her on to the Bismarck, twelve 
miles distant. The enemy was steaming under a cold front, with 
thick cloud down to 700 feet. A co-ordinated attack was impossible 
under such conditions and each sub-flight went in independently. 
In spite of the appalling weather the attacks were pressed home 
most gallantly and two torpedoes hit the ship. One of them sealed 
her fate, hitting her right aft, damaging her propellers, jamming her 
two rudders, and putting lie steerinjg engine out of action. The 
Bismarck slowed down to eight knots and, unable now to steer, 
swung up bows to wind. 

It was at this moment that the unhappy Bismarck sighted five 
destroyers approaching in line abreast. They were Captain Vian's 
4th FlotiBa^a*ttzd:, Maori, Sikh, and Zvhir- and the Polish 
Piorun. On board the German ship the situation must have appeared 
ominous indeed, for even the darkness of the coming night could 
not help her now with these new enemies to keep her in view. An 


immediate award of the Iron Cross was offered to anyone who 
would go down to the flooded steering compartment and free the 
rudders, but the task was beyond anyone on board. 

All through the night she was harried by the destroyers. Both the 
Cossack and the Maori hit her with torpedoes, and the Sikh, too, 
claimed a hit on her. And thus they held her through the hours of 
darkness, waiting to hand her over to the avenging guns of the 
King George /'"and the Rodney in the morning. 

That the Rodney was there at all was a triumph on the part of 
hrr engineering department. She was long overdue for a refit, and 
in the state of her machinery her maximum speed was seventeen 
knots. By almost incredible exertions her engineers had worked 
her up to twenty-one knots during the chase to the south-east- 
ward and held her at that speed for over twenty-four hours. Now 
her reward was waiting for her just over the horizon. 

The day dawned out of a leaden sky. The sea was still rising and 
the two Home Fleet battleships were shipping it green over their 
bows. They had had to reduce speed because of the serious oil fuel 
situation, but the Commander-in-Chief was no longer worrying. 
His fears had been set at rest by the Ark Royal's Swordfish and by 
Captain Vian's gallant destroyers which, he knew, would never let 
go their grip. And although the Sheffield had been forced to give up 
shadowing when her radar had been damaged by a near-miss, the 
Norfolk was there now to mark the victim. She had seen the start of 
the operation far away in the Denmark Straits; she was to see the 
end of it in waters not far from those in which Hawke had shattered 
a French enemy nearly two hundred years earlier. 

At 8-20 sun. on the zyth, the look-out in H.M.S. Rodney reported 
a ship on the port bow. It was the Norfolk, and she flashed a wel- 
coming signal, "Enemy bears 130 degrees, 16 miles.'* The gale was 
still blowing out of the north-west, bringing with it heavy and 
blinding rain squalls. Througjb them, the eyes of the Commander-in- 
Cfatef peered hopefully down the bearing for a first sight of the 
elusive enemy. Twenty-three minutes later, looming on the star- 
board bow > the indistinct outline of a large ship emerged out of a 
rain squall. A flutter of flags crept to the yardarm of tie fleet flag- 


ship, the signal for which every man in the Home Fleet had been 
praying for three long days and nights. "Enemy in sight/* 

The scene on board the Bismarck on the fateful morning has been 
described for us by survivors of the action. An exchange of heroics 
between Admiral Liitjens and the German Fuehrer did nothing to 
allay the sickening fears that began to assail the men of the trapped 
ship. Frequent announcements over the ship's loudspeaker system of 
help on the way, of scores of U-boats in the vicinity, and of hundreds 
of planes to give immunity from attack were belied by their patent 
absence on the scene. All that was visible to the men on board was 
concrete evidence of the long arm of British naval might in the 
harrying attacks of the destroyers. They knew that the net was 
around them and that already it was drawn -tight. 11 

Four minutes after sighting, the Eodney opened fire with her id- 
inch guns. Her first salvo sent a column of water towering 150 feet 
into the air close alongside the doomed ship. Her third hit the 
Bismarck, pierced the side armour, and burst inboard* The King 
George V^ opening fire one minute after the JRoJney, also began to 
hit the enemy. For a few minutes the Bismarck's return fire was 
accurate enough to cause the Rodney to manoeuvre to avoid being 
hit, but it soon became so ragged that the two ships could hardly 
realise that they were under fire. 

One by one the JBismarck's big guns were knocked out A great 
fire was raging on her upper deck and she lay wallowing in the 
Atlantic swell, a black, ragged ruin of a once-proud ship* Admiral 
Tovey, to put her out of her misery, ordered any ship still with 
torpedoes to close and sink her. At 10.25 a.m. the cruiser Dorset- 
shire fired two into her starboard side, steamed round her bow, and 
fired another into her port side. It was the final blow; the great ship 
heeled over to port and began to sink by the stern. A minute or 
two later she turned turde and slid below tie angry sea* The Dorset* 
shire and the Maori picked up no survivors, 

Tlie Dorsetshire, indeed, should not have been there. On 2&h 
May she was bringing home a convoy from Freetown when she 
picked up on her wireless the Catalina's righting report. Leaving 
the convoy in the care of an armed merchant cruiser, she steamed 

away towards the battle. A heavy sea slowed her down a little, but 
just after 8.30 a.m. on the 2yth she sighted a destroyer ahead. It was 
the Cossack, which directed her on towards the enemy. Twenty 
minutes later she sighted the flash of the BismarcKs guns. It was 
thus that she arrived to deliver the coup de grace, having steamed 
600 miles to do so. 

There was an echo of her achievement in the First Lord's room 
at the Admiralty a few days later when, with the First Sea Lord, 
Mr. A. V. Alexander was discussing the question of awards for 
individual gallantry. The case of Captain Martin, of the Dorsetshire, 
came up, whether to reward him or to try him by court-martial for 
lea\ r ing his convoy without orders. "I think we can afford to be 
knient," said Sir Dudley Pound with a twinkle in his eye, and 
Captain Martin was awarded a well-deserved D.S.O. 

The sinking of the Bismarck, an operation of exceptional naval 
interest, was a triumph of skill and co-operation on the part of all 
the forces concerned, air as well as sea. It demonstrated once again 
the innate facility of sea power to concentrate on the objective over 
vast distances and to bring to bear overwhelming might at the 
crucial point of impact. It shows, too, a smooth and happy co- 
operation between the Admiralty, which could assess and signal out 
to all ships and squadrons the immediate value of Intelligence 
repeats as they came in, and the Commander-in-Chief afloat, who 
was thus able to maintain wireless silence at a critical juncture of the 
operation. In his official despatch Admiral Tovey paid handsome 
tribute to the part played by the Admiralty in this victory, as well as 
to the skill and understanding of all the forces engaged during the 
prolonged chase. 11 

The loss of the Bismarck had serious repercussions in Germany. 
The star of ftaeder began to wane, that of Doenitz to rise rapidly 
towards its zenith. It was to be another year and a half before Raeder, 
goaded into exasperation by the continual bickering of Keitel and 
Goering over the Navy's share of men and materials and by arbi- 
trary limitations on big ship construction imposed by Hitler, finally 
hauled down his flag in resignation. But his conception of German 
naval strategy came to an end with the sinking of the Bismarck. 


Never again, throughout the course of the war, did major German 
warships put to sea to cruise against the Allied trade. Apart from the 
disguised merchant raiders, that aspect of the war at sea was left to 
Doenitz and his U-boats. 

Within a month of the end of the Bismarck, the German military 
onslaught was biting deep into Russian soil. Both in London and in 
Washington the necessity of sustaining Russia with plentiful supplies, 
if she were to play any considerable part in the war, was fully appre- 
ciated. The need to meet Russian demands fell upon the Home 
Fleet, for through its power alone could the sea route to Russia 
around the north of Norway be opened. On 2ist August the first 
consignment of Hurricane aircraft were carried from Reykjavik, in 
Iceland, to Archangel; on 28th September the first full convoy 
sailed, to inaugurate a service that was to last to the end of the war. 
The first few convoys went through without difficulty, but it did 
not take long for the Germans to appreciate the immense value of 
the supplies which were traversing the northern routes to assist their 
new enemy. By the end of the year strong German naval and air 
forces were concentrating in new bases in the far north of Norway, 
a forewarning of the fury which was so shortly to fell upon the ships 
using this exposed sea route of supply. An epic story of valour and 
endurance was later to be written in these bitter Arctic waters, but 
at this early stage of the northern supply route it was only the 
weather that was to prove an implacable foe. 

Before the convoy cycle to Russia had started there had occurred, 
during the second week in August, the spectacular meeting between 
Mr. Churchill and President Roosevelt in Placentia Bay, Newfound- 
land. The Prime Minister crossed the Atlantic in H.M.S. Prince of 
Wales and on 9th August met the President on board the American 
cruiser Augusta. It was at this meeting that they produced their 
famous Atlantic Charter, that message from the two great demo- 
cracies which was to bring a new hope to the submerged people of 
Europe and Asia and the promise of a new singleness of purpose in 
the actions of the two main protagonists in the hatde for freedom. 
But perhaps of more importance in the purely naval sphere was the 
agreed adoption of "Naval Plan No. 4", under which die United 


States Navy was to take over immediate responsibility for that 
stretch of the Atlantic which lay between America and Iceland. 
This plan, in addition to giving to U.S. warships the power to 
destroy German surface raiders which might venture to attack any 
convoy between Iceland and America, also allowed the U.S. Navy 
to escort convoys as far as Iceland, even those comprising ships not 
of American registry. 

This arrangement, at one step, eased the heavy pressure in the 
Atlantic caused by the shortage of British and Canadian escorts. 
With this American help, the British escort ships need now proceed 
no farther west than south of Iceland, there to meet and bring home 
the convoys escorted across the western half of the ocean by the 
vessels of our transatlantic partners. To the ships themselves, how- 
ever, and to their crews, it meant no easing of the task, no chance of 
relaxation from the ceaseless burden of convoy. The economy in 
force in the Atlantic which Naval Plan No. 4 introduced merely 
meant that three British escort groups could now be switched to 
other, equally arduous, duties with the Gibraltar and Sierra Leone 

But Naval Plan No. 4 meant even more in its political impact on 
a world torn by war. Here, indeed, was tangible proof of the com- 
munity of interest of the English-speaking nations, of a virtual 
alliance between the great American power in the West, with its 
huge industrial potential, and Great Britain, both implacably op- 
posed to the Nazi and Fascist creeds. There could be little comfort 
for Germany or Italy in the announcement, made by President 
Roosevelt on nth September, of the coming into force of the plan. 

As a result of it Hitler was presented with demands from Raeder 
and Doenitz for permission to operate against American shipping. 
The Fuehrer, however, heavily engaged in the Russian adventure 
and confident that the end of September would bring him the 
success there which he so ardendy desired, 13 delayed until mid- 
October the retaliations wbkfa Raeder and Doenitz demanded, in 
the hope that, by so doing, he could yet pull some of his chestnuts 
out of the fire. 

The easing of the surface escort situation in the Atlantic by the 

1 80 

adoption of the American "Plan No. 4" did nothing, however, to 
solve the problems of air escort* There still remained those ominous 
gaps, beyond the reach of shore-based aircraft, across which the 
convoys had to pass. In the case of the convoys to Gibraltar, this 
gap carried an additional danger in the shape of the German long- 
range Focke-Wulf Kondors, which combined the role of bomber 
with that of reconnaissance aircraft for the U-boats. The Kondors 
did, in fact, also operate on the Atlantic convoy routes, but to a 
much lesser extent than the Gibraltar route which lay so much 
closer to their French bases. 

The Admiralty, in grappling with this problem, had wasted little 
time. By the end of 1940 catapult equipment had been ordered 
suitable for fitting in ships, and the first four so fitted, flying the 
White Ensign and known as fighter catapult ships, came into service 
in April 1941. These ships sailed in the convoys, and their equip- 
ment enabled them to launch a Hurricane fighter as soon as one of 
the German Kondors was sighted. Their first success came in 
August, when a Hurricane from the Maplin shot down a Focke- 
Wulf 400 miles out to sea. 

At the same time as these catapult merchant ships were being 
fitted with their equipment, the Admiralty was also engaged on a 
more ambitious experiment which had the same general object in 
view. They took in hand a captured enemy merchant ship, the 
Hannover , and fitted her with a fiill flight deck. She became the first 
of a long line of escort carriers, and although her own career was 
regrettably brief^ she carried in her conception the final and irrevo- 
cable defeat of the U-boat menace. 

This feet was so obvious that it did not require the operational 
experience of H.M.S. Audadty^ as the Hannover was renamed on 
entering the Royal Navy, to point the way ahead. The Battle of the 
Atlantic Committee, studying the impact that the escort carrier was 
likely to bring to the U-boat battle, recorded that it was "deeply 
impressed'* and pointed out also that such ships could be used "to 
provide a convoy with its own anti-submarine air patrols**. This 
was in May 1941, and that month saw orders being placed for the 
conversion of five similar ships in this country, while six more were 


requested from the United States under Lend-Lease terms. Their 
conversion, however, was of necessity a long-term project, and for 
another year and more the U-boats were to be free to roam the 
oceans without having to meet this devastating threat to their 
operational capacity. 

H.M.S. Audacity^ carrying six Martlet fighters on her flight deck 
she had no hangar became operational in September 1941. She 
was sent to join the Gibraltar convoy escorts and almost at once her 
extreme value became apparent. On 2ist September she scored her 
first success by shooting down a Focke-Wulf Kondor during a fierce 
U-boat attack on an outward-bound convoy. Her presence in the 
convoy came not only as a surprise to the attacking U-boats but as 
so great a menace to their success that Admiral Doenitz, com- 
manding the U-boat arm, gave orders for her destruction. She was 
designated as the primary target in any future operation. 

It was in December that she met her end. She was part of the 
escort of a homeward-bound convoy from Gibraltar which wa^ 
singled out for particularly heavy attack by wolf-pack methods. The 
battle was continuous, day and night, and the Audacity's Martlets 
did sterling work, shooting down two Focke-Wulfs. They acted 
also as an anti-submarine patrol although, as fighters, they were not 
particularly fitted for this role. 

The surface escort was led by Commander F. J. Walker in the 
Stork. He was already one of the most experienced of escort group 
leaders; later his uncanny skill was to stamp him as the most famous 
and successful of them alL This particular battle was his first out- 
standing success and, indeed, the first really heavy defeat that the 
U-boats had experienced since the start of the war. Of the nine 
U-boats which Doenitz had concentrated for this attack, four were 
sunk for the loss of two merchant ships and one escorting destroyer. 
Towards the end of the battle Doenitz threw in three more U-boats 
under experienced captains and it was one of these which torpedoed 
and sank the Audacity. At the time she was operating unprotected 
ten miles away from the convoy, well outside the defensive screen 
of escorts, and her loss was not therefore due to any direct failure 
of the surface escorts in their protective duties. 


Doenitz himself, in his official report on the operation, had this 
to say on the presence of the Audacity: "The worst feature was the 
presence of the aircraft carrier. Small, fast, manoeuvrable aircraft 
circled the convoy continuously, so that when it was sighted the 
boats were repeatedly forced to submerge or withdraw. The presence 
of enemy aircraft also prevented any protracted shadowing or 
homing procedure by German aircraft. The sinking of the aircraft 
carrier is therefore of particular importance, not only in this case but 
also in every future convoy action/' 14 

To Doenitz the appearance of an escort carrier with a convoy was 
the writing on the wall. That it should make its appearance on the 
Gibraltar convoy route first and not in the Atlantic was a direct 
result of the German Navy shifting their main emphasis of U-boat 
warfare to the Mediterranean at the expense of the Atlantic. Raeder, 
who always had a far greater strategical grasp of the general war 
situation than any other German leader, had managed to persuade 
Hitler as early as June 1941 of the vital consequences to Germany 
of a defeat in the Mediterranean area, 15 and during September six 
U-boats passed through the Straits of Gibraltar to operate in the 
Western Mediterranean. Others followed rapidly. The inadequacy of 
the Italian Navy in transporting sufficient supplies to Rommel's 
Afrika Korps was the main reason for this influx, and the second 
British offensive in the western desert proved an added spur. In 
Raeder*s view, "the British North African offensive and the reports 
of intended Anglo-French landings in French North Africa consti- 
tute a grave threat to the Mediterranean and to Italy, In so far as our 
Navy can influence the situation, the area round Gibraltar now 
becomes vitally important The strategic importance of holding our 
position in the Mediterranean compels us to concentrate the main 
operational strength of the U-boats in the Gibraltar area until the 
situation improves/* 1 * 

This concentration, amounting in all to twenty-seven U-boats, 
brought the Atlantic operations almost to a standstill The breathing 
space against attack there, however, brought little rest to the escort- 
ship crews. The majority of them followed the U-boats, to augment 
the escort force on the heavily threatened Gibraltar run. There the 

same arduous convoy duties kept them at the fullest stretch. This 
additional escort strength, combined with the fact that the sea round 
Gibraltar made the task of the U-boats more difficult because of its 
clarity, earned that area the name of "the Gibraltar mousetrap** by 
the U-boat commanders. They suffered several losses. 

The collapse of the British offensive in North Africa, which came 
to a halt with the turn of the year, allowed the U-boats west of 
Gibraltar to return once more to their hunting-ground in the 
Atlantic. But even as they took up their patrol positions in this 
great and profitable area, shattering events were taking place on the 
other side of the world. They were to transform the whole war 
situation almost in the twinkling of an eye, and to confront British 
sea power with a sterner test than it had ever faced before through- 
out the whole of its long history. 

The enigma of Japanese intentions in the Far East dated back to 
the French surrender in the summer of 1940. That collapse had 
opened a door to Japanese infiltration into south-east Asia through 
the occupation of French Indo-China, on which it was well known 
that Japanese eyes were cast in eager anticipation. In itself such an 
aggression would not be immediately threatening, even though it 
would bring to Japan the effective control of the South China Sea 
by means of the well-placed naval base at Kanoanh Bay. Indo-Chtna, 
howeve^ provided an open door into Siam, and if the Japanese 
stepped through that the consequences to Malaya irdght be disas- 

This was a situation fraught with danger, although on the ciedit 
side there were some heartening features. Japan was still engaged in 
her endless struggle with China, and might well wish to bring that 
adventure to a successful coticfasion before embarking on a raw one. 
In the central Pacific, based on Pearl Ha&our, in Oaki Island, lay 
a strong American fleet, and the United States was not likely to sit 
passively on the sidelines and watch Japan extend her Pacific Empire 
at the expense of the many American interests in that area. To the 
south, in the Duteh East Indies, there was a useful squadron of 
cruisers, destroyers, and submarines of the Dutch Navy whidh 
could be counted upon to fight any Japanese inroads OB Dutch 

territory. There was also Great Britain, heavily engaged elsewhere, 
it is true, but even then no negligible opponent. It seemed unlikely 
at the time that Japan would willingly throw down the gauntlet to 
such powerful adversaries and invite them simultaneously into the 
lists against her. 

As one looks back through the years towards those dramatic 
moments in Far Eastern waters at the close of 1941, it appears 
amazing how gravely Japanese capabilities were underrated by the 
Allies- It is difficult now not to feel surprise at the faulty appreciation 
made by the Chiefs of Staff. It sprang mainly, of course, from lack of 
good Intelligence, but one cannot help catching a glimpse, too, of 
wishful thinking. Old beliefs die hard, and to Mr. Menzies, Prime 
Minister of Australia, who was showing an understandable nervous- 
ness at the lack of naval, military, and air strength at Singapore, 
went an appreciation of Japanese air capabilities obviously based on 
reports of air encounters in the occasional Russian-Japanese brushes 
during the Manchurian campaign between the wars. These reports 
it is true referred to military aircraft, but the lack of up-to-date 
intelligence undoubtedly caused a false impression to gain ground. 
How far this was from the truth, and how rude and painful was to 
be the awakening, could perhaps best be described by the survivors 
of the Prince of Wales and Repulse no more than three days after 
the outbreak of war in the Far East. 

At the end of July 1941 Japan took the first step towards the abyss. 
Her troops occupied Saigon, capital of Indo-China, and she de- 
manded from Vichy the right to join in the "defence" of the country. 
The sky over Malaya and the vast archipelago of islands stretching 
down towards Australia grew dark with menace. The occupation of 
IndoChina was followed by Allied economic action in the imme- 
diate freezing of Japanese assets in Britain, the United States, and the 
Dutch East Indies, bringing all trade to an immediate standstill. In 
this concerted action lay the warning to Japan that any further 
advance towards war was likely to meet united opposition. 

Opposition, however, needs force to make it effective. The main 
strength of the United States Pacific Fleet was concentrated at 
Pearl Harbour; in the Dutch East Indies Admiral Doorman's ships 

1 86 

stood in the path of a Japanese drive to the south. Great Britain was 
represented in Singapore by three cruisers and four destroyers, with 
the elderly battle-cruiser Repulse and the small obsolete carrier 
Hermes on the adjacent East Indies station, based on Ceylon* A 
rapid reinforcement of Malaya, military and air as well as naval, was 
an imperative necessity if the implied threat to resist further Japan- 
ese aggression were not to be purely a hollow one. 

Admiral Pound, the First Sea Lord, was fully aware of this need, 
and had indeed made plans to send out sizable reinforcements to the 
East, based on Trincomalee. A total eastern fleet of seven capital 
ships, including the Rodney and Nelson^ and a second carrier, the 
Ark Royal, was planned. But many of the ships earmarked for this 
duty were not immediately available, and it was hoped that the 
United States Pacific Fleet would prove a sufficient shield for these 
vital waters until the British concentration could be completed. 

The Prime Minister, however, had other views. He was looking 
for the immediate deterrent, the force that, by its presence in those 
waters, might yet give Japan cause to delay her final step into war. 
After much discussion, it was finally decided to send the Prince of 
Wales to join the Repulse in the Indian Ocean, and to base them 
both on Singapore. The carrier Indomitable was to have accompanied 
the Prince of Waks^ but die had been damaged in an accidental 
grounding at Kingston, Jamaica, and so was not available* The 
Prince of Woks sailed alone on 25th October, flying the flag of 
Admiral Sir Tom Phillips as the new Commander-in-Chiefi Eastern 
Fleet. She joined the Repulse at Colombo on 28th November and the 
two ships reached Singapore on 2nd December. 

Even as they arrived the die had long been cast by Japan, though 
as yet in secret. Twenty-two days earlier the first ships of a gigantic 
striking force had left their Japanese bases to rendezvous in a bare, 
windswept bay in the Kurile Islands, north of Japan. There they 
took on board provisions collected in advance. And from there, on 
26th November, six aircraft carriers, two battleships, two cruisers, 
and eleven destroyers, accompanied by a fleet train of eight tankers 
and supply ships, sailed on their secret mission into the central 
Pacific. At 6.0 a.m. on yth December the striking force reached its 


destination, a point about 275 miles north of Pearl Harbour. 
Complete wireless silence at sea had afforded no clue to the American 
intelligence officers that Japanese ships had left their bases; heavy 
weather in the Pacific had shrouded the ships from aerial re- 

Yet even then complete surprise should not have been achieved. 
There was, in the United States, knowledge through a deciphered 
Japanese signal that an attack on Pearl Harbour was imminent, and 
the authorities there had been warned. In the entrance to Pearl 
Harbour, four full hours before the aircraft appeared overhead, the 
destroyer Ward had a sighting report of a periscope and sank a 
Japanese midget submarine two hours later. No notice was taken. 
A military radar operator, manning his set beyond the appointed 
hour because his breakfast was late, plotted the course of the 
approaching bombers and reported them to the officer of the watch 
and still no notice was taken. 

"Pearl Harbour was still asleep in the morning mist," wrote 
Commander Nakaya, who was leader of the first strike of aircraft. 
"It was calm and serene inside the harbour, not even a trace of 
smoke from the ships at Oahu. The orderly groups of barracks, the 
wriggling white line of the automobile road climbing up to the 
mountain-top; fine objectives of attack in all directions. In line with 
these, inside the harbour, were important ships of the Pacific Fleet, 
strung out and anchored two ships side by side in an orderly man- 
ner/* 1 ? At 7.50 a.m. the firt bombs rained down out of a peaceful 
sky on the unsuspecting ships. The attack was completely success- 
ful, and the United States Pacific Fleet was reduced from a power- 
ful fighting force to a shambles. All that escaped the attack were 
three carriers which were at sea that morning on exercises. The 
way was open now to the Japanese to push their empire down into 
the rich lands of the south-west Pacific, for the only force capable 
of stopping them bad been annihilated in this savage, unforeseen 
blow from the skies. 

The Japanese succeeded in doing for Britain in one aggressive 
move what Mr. Churchill had foiled to achieve in months of patient 
diplomacy. They had brought the United States folly into the war, 


. with all her vast wealth and genius now deployed in the fight against 
the dictators. Faced with the inevitable, Hitler and Mussolini 
declared war on the United States on i ith December. And out of the 
tragedy of Pearl Harbour was forged a new and infinitely powerful 
brotherhood of arms that was to hold in its grasp the doom of all 
the Axis powers. 


Chapter 8 


f | \HE late summer and autumn of 1941 had brought some 

I encouraging turns of fortune to the Allied cause as a whole. 

JL After the heavy merchant shipping losses in the Atlantic of 

March, April, May, and June, -with an average of more than half a 

million tons each month, those of the next five months dropped to 

less than one-third of this massive total. The Bismarck had been 

sunk and there were no more surface warships out on the trade 

routes to threaten the convoys. 

There had been successes in the Mediterranean and Middle East 
too. The steady reinforcement of the Egyptian front with troops 
aad supplies continued without interruption by the enemy, with an 
average of one full convoy each month making the long voyage 
round the Cape. Three substantial convoys had been taken through 
to Malta without undue difficulty or loss, the third of them at the 
end of September. At one moment during this operation there had 
seemed to develop a chance of a major action when the Italian Fleet 
put to sea to intercept. They turned for home, however, long before 
contact was established, and the hope of a victory died with the now 
familiar sense of frustration. As the convoy entered the Grand 
Harixmr at Maka the escorting cruisers led it in with guards paraded 
and bands playing, while most of the population of Valletta clus- 
tered in a serried mass on the bomb-scarred battlements and the 
ancient harbour echoed to the roar of their frenzied cheering. It was 
a touch of peacetime pageantry amid the grim reality of war, a tiny 


jewel of naval defiance that lifted up the hearts of the much-en- 
during Maltese people. 

Malta also had other reasons to cheer. In an attempt to revive the 
success of i6th April, when four destroyers operating from Malta 
had annihilated a convoy carrying supplies to Rommel, a force of 
cruisers and destroyers, known as Force K and under the command 
of Captain W. G. Agnew, was based there, arriving on 2ist October. 
On the night of 8th/9th November it struck its first blow in a brief 
and overwhelming action in which it sank the whole of a convoy 
escorted by a force more powerful than itself. By noon on the 9th 
it was back in Malta without loss or damage to ship or man. Ten 
days later it repeated the exploit, again destroying an entire convoy. 
As a result of these two operations, "brilliant examples of leadership 
and forethought" in the words of the Commander-in-Chief, Rom- 
mePs movements in North Africa were brought almost to a com- 
plete stop through lack of reinforcements and of fuel and that at a 
moment when he was heavily engaged with the Eighth Army as it 
advanced through Libya- 
Force K made its presence felt yet again when, on ist December, 
it sank another supply ship and a tanker, together with its destroyer 
escort. The loss of supplies for the German-Italian army in North 
Africa caused by these operations was now becoming so serious that 
Hitler, in order to bolster up Rommel's resistance, was forced to ' 
reinforce the German air strength in the Mediterranean by one 
Fliegerkorps of about zoo aircraft. It had to be withdrawn from the 
Russian front, and by that much eased the burden oil our hard- 
pressed Allies in their struggle* 

But already the goddess of fortune was showing her fickleness. 
If there were many who, during the summer and autumn months of 
1941, had discerned her smiles directed towards the Allied cause, 
there were few who could fail to recognise her frowns as the year 
drew to its dose. There was one last flicker of a smile in the early 
hours of I3tfa December when the destroyers Sikhy Legion^ and 
Maori, together with the Dutch destroyer Isaac Swears, encountered 
the Italian cruisers Alberto di Giussano and A&erico da Baritone off 
Cape Bon in Tunisia. Commander G. H. Stokes, leading the force, 


took his ships close inshore in order to gain the advantage of virtual 
invisibility against the background of the land and succeeded in 
sinking both the enemy cruisers by torpedo attack. Each was carry- 
ing a deck cargo of cased petrol for Rommel, and this loss, grievous 
as it was to the Italian Navy, was no less depressing to the Afrika 
Korps* This, however, was but a fleeting smile, for already the 
storm clouds were gathering. 

It has been mentioned in the previous chapter that, in order to 
give support to Rommel's supply route, the U-boats had been 
ordered to concentrate in the Mediterranean and in the Gibraltar 
approaches. They scored their first really big success on i3th 
November when U.8i torpedoed H.M.S. Ark Royal as she was 
returning from the second of two sorties towards Malta to fly off 
reinforcing aircraft. The carrier, listing heavily, was taken in tow 
by two tugs, but sank some fourteen hours later when within 
twenty-five miles of safety at Gibraltar. Of her entire ship's com- 
pany only one man was lost. 

This was, indeed, a bitter blow, for she was the only carrier in the 
Mediterranean. Moreover, there was at the time no other with which 
to replace her, for the Formidable and Illustrious ^ere both under 
repair for damage sustained in action, and the Indomitable was in 
dock after her grounding in the West Indies. 

In the eastern Mediterranean an equally serious blow was struck 
at Admiral Cunningham's fleet when the battleship Barham was 
torpedoed and sunk with heavy loss of life by U.3jz. This was on 
zjth November, when the fleet was out in search of a reported 
convoy of tankers bound for North Africa. But there was worse 
stiH to follow. The cguiser Galatea was torpedoed and sunk by 
U.$5j on i4th December, and five days later a gallant attack by 
Italian "human torpedoes" on the main fleet base at Alexandria 
successfully crippled Admiral Cunningham's two remaining battle- 
ships* the Queen Elizabeth and Valiant. Both were extensively 
flooded by the explosion of the charges attached to their underwater 
hulk by these Italian "cfaarioteers", and it was to be many months 
before the two ships -were again in service. 

Nor was this the full tale of disaster in the Mediterranean. Force 


K, which had been doing such sterling work from Malta in the 
disruption of supplies to Rommel, came sadly to grief. Early in the 
morning of I9th December, while out in search of a supply convoy, 
the cruisers Neptune, Aurora, and Penelope, all of Force K, ran into 
a minefield and were damaged. The Aurora and Penelope succeeded 
in reaching Malta in safety, but the Neptune, her steering gear 
shattered in the explosion, drifted on to a second mine, and later 
still on to a third. She capsized, and all but one of her ship's company 
perished with her. The destroyer Kandahar^ proceeding to the res- 
cue of the stricken Neptune^ was herself mined and had her stern 
blown off. She was later sunk by the Jaguar after her crew, by a 
feat of superb seamanship, had been taken off. 

These disasters in the Mediterranean could hardly have come at 
a more inopportune moment. The long, patient build-up of the 
Eighth Ari^y in Egypt had at last reached a stage which justified 
another trial of strength with the enemy land forces in North Africa, 
and on i8th November the assault had begun. For sixteen dramatic 
days the issue swung precariously in the balance while the great 
armoured battle of Sidi Rezegh swayed backwards and forwards. 
It ended in a victory which swept tire enemy out of Libya. The 
garrison of Tobruk, maintained by the Navy for ten months of siege, 
was at last liberated by the advancing British forces, and on Christ- 
mas Eve Benghazi was once again in the hands of the Eighth Army. 

It was at this stage of the advance on land that the losses at sea 
began to tell their inevitable tale. With the forward airfields in 
Cyrenaica in British hands, the Royal Air Force was able to some 
extent to play the part of the non-existent aircraft carrier and give 
cover to the Inshore Squadron as it established by sea a supply route 
for the Army through the ports of Tobruk, Derna, and Benghazi. 
This, however, was only a part of the essential task of sea power* 
Of equal importance was the stopping of the enemy convoys which 
carried to Rommel the suppfies he needied from the European 
mainland. This task was now beyond the capacity of the attenuated 
Force K, especially as these convoys were now sailing with escorts 
of battleships and cruisers which made them virtually immune fiam 
surface attack. Submarines and aircraft based in Malta did what they 


could to hold up these convoys, so vital to Rommel, but they alone 
could not fill the gap caused by the absence of sufficiently powerful 
surface forces in the central Mediterranean. 

The vicious circle was thus complete. The lack of sea power in 
this area allowed Rommel to receive the reinforcements and supplies 
that he needed, and with these he was able once more to contemplate 
the offensive. On 2ist January he struck at the Eighth Army's out- 
posts and a week later was back in Benghazi. It was the first step of 
a long advance eastward which was not only to drive the Eighth 
Army steadily back but was also to deprive the Royal Air Force of 
their Cyrenaican airfields. That in its turn deprived the Navy of its 
only source of air cover and inevitably curtailed its operations on the 
Eighth Army's flank. Without that assistance the Army was forced 
to retire to shorten its lines of supply* Thus was the loss of power 
at sea quickly reflected in the land battle. 

Although Rommel was unable to reach the full extent of his 
advance in one bound, the regular arrival of his supplies enabled him 
in the end to build up stocks sufficient to take him across the Egyp- 
tian border. By ist July he was within fifty miles of Cairo and 
Alexandria, and it seemed as though, after two years of patient war, 
the whole of the Allied Middle East policy was in ruins. But Rom- 
mel, too, was outrunning his supplies. He was finally held on the 
El Alamein line, as much by his own supply problems as by the 
tenacity of the Eighth Army. 

The inability to reinforce Admiral Cunningham at this critical 
juncture was dictated by the need to build up a new fleet in the Far 
East, where the precipitous assault by Japan had not only added two 
new oceans to the Navy's commitments but also had resulted in 
overwhelming disaster to the British forces in that theatre. These 
two facts, exacerbated by the severe losses in the Mediterranean, 
were now thrusting the Navy almost to the vetge of defeat, and not 
in the Mediterranean alone. 

In the desperate need to find ships with which to try to hold the 
Japanese advance, the First Sea Lord had earlier warned Admiral 
Cunningham, and also Admiral Sonierville of Force H, that it might 
be necessary to withdraw all capital ships from the eastern and 


western Mediterranean, leaving the task of guarding the convoys 
and of striking the enemy at sea to light surface forces, submarines, 
and aircraft. While expressing his anxiety to assist in the new crisis 
by all means in his power, even to that of releasing his capital ships, 
Admiral Cunningham pointed out that the proposal would at best 
be a gamble which could only be justified by the retention in 
strength of the Cyrenaican airfields, coupled with a considerable 
reinforcement of the air strength in Malta. 

In the end, this doctrine was forced upon Admiral Cunningham, 
and without the Cyrenaican airfields on which he depended for 
adequate offensive power in the central Mediterranean. As men- 
tioned above, they were lost in RommeFs advance of 2ist January, 
and Admiral Cunningham's two remaining capital ships were 
effectively removed by the Italian assault. Control of the waters 
around Malta had to be left to the island's own resources in aircraft 
and submarines, and the naval task in the eastern Mediterranean had 
to be borne by cruisers, destroyers, and submarines, supported by 
the Fleet Air Arm and the Royal Air Force. On them now fell the 
whole brunt of the sea war in those matters. Tankers from Haifa, 
bringing the oil fuel on which the whole Middle East position 
depended, had to be escorted; reinforcement convoys delivered to 
the Middle East bases; and all enemy movements at sea restricted to 
the utmost. At times it appeared a superhuman task. 

For a time, indeed, control of the eastern Mediterranean seaways 
was tenuous, even spasmodic, and so far as Malta was concerned 
every attempt to supply from Alexandria ended in failure. Yet the 
Haifa supply route was successfully defended, aircraft and sub- 
marines continued to harass Rommel's supplies, and the few ships 
left to Admiral Cunningham, hard pressed though they were, 
succeeded in holding the enemy out of the eastern Mediterranean 
throughout those anxious months when all our affeirs seemed to be 
going awry. Rider's greatest chance of victory, by overrunning the 
whole of the Middle East, was held at sea, on land, and in the air, 
though the defence throughout was desperately thin. 

Events in home waters permitted no rosier view. During Febru- 
ary 1942 the Sckarnkorst, Gndsenau.^ and Prm{ Eugen had broken 


out from Brest and had returned to their home ports by way of the 
English Channel* The shock to the public at their dramatic escape 
through waters traditionally held by the Royal Navy was extreme. 
The German success appeared to expose weaknesses in the Navy 
which in feet were not really there, though their passage did expose 
a lamentable state of operational deficiency in the performance of the 
obsolescent Swordfish aircraft when opposed by modern fighters. 

For nearly eleven months the Sckarnhorst and Gneisenau, and for 
nearly nine months the Prini Eugen, had lain at Brest after their 
Atlantic cruises, the objects of repeated and costly bomber attacks. 
AH of them had been damaged at one time or another by bombs, 
and the Gneisenau by a torpedo as well, but by the beginning of 1942 
it was known at the Admiralty that all three were fully repaired and 
ready for sea. There were also very strong indications that they 
were preparing to make a break for their home ports. There was no 
doubt in the Admiralty mind that, if they did so, they would make 
it through the English Channel, where they could count on strong 
fighter cover all the way, rather than by the longer route north of 

For some little time Hitler had convinced himself that an Allied 
attack on Norway was impending. He expressed this opinion at a 
meeting with Raeder on 12th January, 1942, where the problem of 
the ships at Brest was discussed. 1 Hitler was determined to withdraw 
them and station them in Norway, in spite of all the dangers of 
bringing them through the Channel 'The situation at Brest," he 
said, "is like that of a patient with cancer who was doomed unless 
he submitted to an operation. An operation on the other hand, even 
though it might have to be a drastic one, would offer at least some 
hope that the patient's life might be saved. The passage of the 
German ships through the Channel will be such an operation and 
has therefore to be attempted." 2 Planning started at once. 

Responsibility for the British side of the operation was in the 
hands of the Vice-Admiral, Dover, Sir Bertram Ramsay. By 3rd 
February his preliminary dispositions were made, the Admiralty 
having placed at his disposal a small force of one minelayer, six 
destroyers, and six motor torpedo boats. 3 At Admiral Ramsay's 


request they were augmented by six Swordfish of No. 825 Squadron, 
under the command of Lieutenant-Commander E. Esmonde, sta- 
tioned at Manston, Kent. 

It seemed to the Vice-Admiral, Dover, and to the Admiralty and 
Air Ministry as well, that the enemy would almost certainly use the 
hours of darkness in which to pass through the narrow waters of 
the Dover Straits. He would also almost certainly need high water 
for the passage in order to give him the maximum protection from 
minefields. The night of uth/i2th February provided these condi- 
tions, with fourteen hours of darkness and high water at Dover one 
hour after sunrise. Allowing two hours either side of high water to 
provide sufficient depth for the ships to pass safely, Admiral Ramsay 
expected to find them off Dover about an hour before dawn on 
the 1 2th. 

In order to provide the maximum warning of an enemy move- 
ment, the submarine Sealion was sent to patrol off Brest Roads and 
Coastal Command were ordered to fly nightly searches by Hudson 
aircraft fitted with radar. It was hoped by these means to get at least 
six hours* warning, and with luck considerably more, before the 
German ships approached the Dover narrows. 

On the night of the nth, so certain was he that fais appreciation 
was correct, Admiral Ramsay sat late in his Operations Room at 
Dover. The aircraft patrols were out and the Admiral waited 
confidently for their sighting reports. The hours passed and all was 
silence from the Channel. Arriving reluctantly at the conclusion 
that he must have been mistaken, Admiral Ramsay finally retired to 
bed in the small hours of I2th February. 

Yet the three German ships, in fact, were out and were even then 
steaming steadily up the Channel. By one of those unfortunate 
coincidences which so often seem to happen on great occasions, the 
ASV (radar) gear of the most westerly search aircraft broke down 
at the critical moment. For three hours the waters off Brest werefeft 
uncovered, and during those three hours the enemy ships sailed* 
What, perhaps, was even worse was the Mure of the JLAJF. head- 
quarters concerned to inform Admiral Ramsay of the breakdown. 
The second reconnaissance aircraft, patrolling between Usbant and 


lie de Brehat, also reported a failure of its ASV. The aircraft was 
recalled, but unfortunately no relief machine was despatched to 
cover this area in its place and the German ships passed through it 
unlocated. Once again Admiral Ramsay was not informed of the 
failure to search these waters. The third aircraft, between Havre 
and Boulogne, was too far to the west and it was not until it 
had returned to base that the ships reached that part of the 

This particular failure was, of course, due to the belief that the 
enemy would try to pass through the Dover Straits during dark 
hours. Basically it was that assumption which caused the enemy 
ships to be missed, through flying the third patrol too early in the 
morning. Nevertheless, had the ASV been working in either of the 
two more westerly patrol aircraft, the report for which Admiral 
Ramsay had been waiting would certainly have come through, and 
he would have been able to mount his attack at the time and place 
most favourable for success. Had even the failures in the other two 
aircraft been reported to him he could probably have taken naval 
measures to search for and report the German ships. It might well 
have made all the difference in the final result. 

At 10.45 a.m., by which time the naval forces allocated to 
Admiral Ramsay had reverted to the normal daylight notice of four 
hours from the fifteen minutes maintained during the night, a radar 
plot of surface ships off Cape Gris Nez was received. It was at too 
great a range to determine either the number or the size of the ships 
concerned, and Admiral Ramsay's Headquarters asked for an addi- 
tional "Jim Crow" reconnaissance to be flown. These "Jim Crows" 
were flights by fighters between Fecamp and Ostend every two 
hours during daylight in order to observe movements of enemy 
ships* Twenty minutes later the "Jim Crow'* report was being 
studied at Dover. It stated that the radar plot consisted of from 
twenty-five to thirty vessels, consisting of small destroyers or 
sloops, accompanied by E- or R-boats. 

In fact, it was the Scharnkorst y Gneisenau, and Prin^ JSugen, 
screened by six destroyers and escorted by fifteen torpedo boats and 
twenty-four E-boats (motor torpedo boats). By good fortune the 


Group Captain at No. u Group, which supplied the "J* m Crows", 
himself took up a fighter to verify the report. Twenty minutes later 
he was back, and the truth reached Dover via No. n Group, 
Fighter Command, and the Admiralty. 

It was a most unpleasant surprise. The basis of Admiral Ramsay's 
plan had been first to attack the enemy in the Dover Straits with 
Swordfish torpedo bombers and motor torpedo boats, where the 
maximum advantage could have been derived from our numerical 
and tactical air superiority, and then to finish off the ships by 
bombers, coupled with an attack by Beaufort torpedo bombers of 
Coastal Command. Now it was too late for the first attack, for the 
enemy ships were already in the Straits and would be through them 
long before any ship or aircraft could reach them. 

Nevertheless, the striking forces of motor torpedo boats and 
Swordfish were immediately ordered into action and the Royal Air 
Force was asked for maximum fighter cover. A total of eighty-four 
fighters was promised. But once again things went wrong. By the 
time the six Swordfish were in the air only ten of the eighty-four 
had materialised, and it was with this meagre escort that the gallant 
Esmonde set out to lead his half-squadron against an immensely 
powerful force of surface ships protected by the greatest strength of 
fighter cover that the enemy could muster* He must have known 
that he was flying to his death, for without a strong fighter cover 
he had no chance. 

First to reach the enemy were the motor torpedo boats from 
Dover* The promised British fighters had not arrived and -without 
their help it was impossible to penetrate the German outer screen 
of E-boats. Torpedoes were fired through the screen at the battle- 
cruisers, but none reached their mark. 

As the last of the motor torpedo boats was attacking, the Swocd- 
fish arrived. That they had arrived at all was a wonderful tribute to 
the determination of their pilots, for enemy fighters had intercepted 
them off Ramsgate and had subjected them to savage attack all the 
way. AH were damaged, but somehow their pilots kept them in the 
air. Esmonde^ in the leading Swordfish, had his lower port main 
pkne completely shot away yet stiH retained control Finally, wbeo 


only 3,000 yards from his target, he was heavily hit again and 
crashed into the sea* 

The other Swordfish continued to close the enemy. Subjected to 
incessant attacks by the enemy fighters, they yet remained in the air 
long enough to drop their torpedoes. But by then it was all over for 
them. The fantastic odds that they had faced, both from anti- 
aircraft fire from the German ships and from the enemy's fighter 
cover, were too great for survival. Not one Swordfish returned from 
this gallant sortie, and no more than five of the eighteen men who 
flew them were picked up. Of these five, only two were un- 

This epic attack of the Swordfish was described by Admiral 
Ramsay as "one of the finest exhibitions of self-sacrifice and devo- 
tion to duty that this war has yet witnessed". 4 To Lieutenant- 
Commander Esmonde went a posthumous award of the Victoria 
Cross for his amazing gallantry, the five survivors were awarded 
four D.S.O.S and a C.G.M. between them, and the remain- 
ing twelve airmen were each posthumously mentioned in 
Despatches. 5 

But in spite of all this gallantry no German ship had yet been 
hit. They steamed steadily on and by now were out in die more 
open waters of the southern North Sea, with their goal almost in 
sight. The bold gamble in forcing the Channel in daylight looked 
like succeeding. 

There remained the six destroyers, based on Harwich, which had 
been placed under Admiral Ramsay's control for this operation. 
lake the other ships concerned, they had reverted to four hours' 
notice on the morning of the izth when no report of the German 
strips had come through. Fortunately, when the alarm was received 
shortly before noon, they were still at sea carrying out firing 

Immediately on recript of Vice-Admiral,, Dover's, signal, they 
set course for the enemy. To reach them in time meant that the 
destroyers would have to cross a known German minefield. There 
was no hesitation. This was the last chance of stopping the enemy, 
and to Captain Pizey, leading the destroyers, the risk was one which, 


in the particular circumstances, had to be accepted. Five of the six 
destroyers got across safely, the sixth ran her main bearings before 
reaching the mine barrier and was forced to tum back. 

By four o'clock in the afternoon the destroyers were in contact, 
but their attacks were as unfruitful as had been the earlier ones of the 
motor torpedo boats and the Swordfish. They had to face an 
additional difficulty as they strove to reach a good attacking posi- 
tion, for as the short February day approached its end the wind, 
which had been moderate in the morning, freshened into a gale 
which knocked up a heavy and confused sea over the shallows off 
the Dutch coast. The visibility, too, was closing down rapidly and 
the destroyer captains had great difficulty in finding their massive 
opponents. Seas were breaking green over the small ships fore and 
aft, there were continuous sheets of spray over the bridges, and at 
times the guns* crews were working knee deep in water. 6 

While the destroyers weue making their attacks, die Royal Air 
Force was also playing its part in the battle. Two hundred and 
forty-two aircraft of Bomber Command, 398 fighters, and 28 tor- 
pedo-dropping Beauforts of Coastal Command were engaged. 
But they were all too late, the atrocious weather making it almost 
impossible even to find the enemy, let alone to do him any damage* 
Their attacks were as unsuccessful as were those of the Navy. 

Yet the two German battle-cruisers were not to reach their home 
ports unscathed. Both of them hit mines laid earlier in the waters 
off the German coast. The damage to the Gneisenau proved to be 
slight, but the Sckarnhorst, which hit two mines, had one of her 
engines put out of action and shipped over a thousand tons of sea 
water. She finally limped slowly into Wilhelmshaven, where she had 
to dock for major repairs which lasted many months. 

The failure to bring the enemy to decisive action sent a wave erf 
dismay throughout the country. In the eyes of the pubEc it seemed 
as though the Navy had let them down, and that the shield of sea 
power, for so long the nation's safeguard, had perished. "Vice- 
Admiral Ciliax [the German admiral in command] has succeeded 
where the Duke of Medina Sidonia failed**, wrote Tke Times in a 
leading article. "Nothing more mortifying to the pride of sea power 


has happened in Home waters since the xyth Century." 7 

It was not quite as bad as that. There must always be the occa- 
sional ships which get through, no matter how strong the opposition 
posed against them. In this case the opposition was relatively 
minute, for it was not possible to tie up strong forces within reach 
of the Channel for a problematical operation of which even the date 
was in doubt. The failure to stop the ships was lamentable, though 
understandable in the light of the failure to warn Admiral 
Ramsay of the radar breakdown in the two western search air- 
craft. But it bore some fruit by the attention it focused on the plight 
of the Navy in respect of its air striking power. In the competition 
for modern aircraft the Fleet Air Arm had been sadly overlooked. 
The public dismay at the events of izth February in the English 
Channel now led to a "new deal*' in the matter of naval aircraft, 
bringing at last to the Navy a flow of powerful American types 
capable of holding their own in the stresses of modern naval war- 

The unhappy events in the Mediterranean and in Home waters, 
however, paled almost into insignificance compared with the magni- 
tude of the defeat in the Far East. In the previous chapter the events 
leading up to the despatch of the Prince of Wales and Repulse to 
Singapore were described. The two ships reached their destination 
on ind December, 1941. Eight days later both had been sunk by the 
Japanese and the Allied Far Eastern strategy lay in ruins. 

With the sinking of the Prince of Wales had perished the new 
Commander-in-Chief 5 Admiral Sir Tom Phillips. It is therefore 
impossible to know what thoughts lay in his mind as he took his 
two ships up towards the northward from Singapore on 8th 
December. It was his intention to attack Japanese transports and 
warships which had been reported off Singora, on the coast of Siam, 
and off Khota Barn, in the north of Malaya. 8 Before sailing he had 
asked for air reconnaissance and for fighter cover while in these 
northern waters, but within six hours of leaving Singapore he was 
told by signal that the fighter cover for which he had asked would 
not be forthcoming because of the loss of the northern Malayan 


Admiral Phillips had been Vice-Chief of Naval Staff before his 
appointment to command the Eastern Fleet. He knew, therefore, 
the risks to which ships are subjected while operating under skies 
dominated by enemy air power, and the lessons of the Norwegian 
and Cretan campaigns must have been still fresh in his mind. But it 
seems that events were moving too quickly for Admiral Phillips, for 
the Japanese assault on Malaya came within an hour and a half of the 
attack on the American Fleet at Pearl Harbour* From the very out- 
set the British army and air forces in northern Malaya were being 
driven back, and it was, unthinkable to Admiral Phillips to let that 
situation go by default while he had powerful ships available. 
Hoping to gain by surprise what he was losing through lack of air 
cover, he set out on the venture which was to lose him his fleet and 
his life. 

The Japanese plan was a massive one.* Several simultaneous 
landings were planned in Malaya and Siam, the troops being em- 
barked in twenty-eight transports. A total of two battleships, seven 
8-inch cruisers, three 6-inch cruisers, twenty-four destroyers, and 
twelve submarines were disposed as close escort and covering forces 
for the operation. In addition, ninety-nine bombers, thirty-nine 
fighters, and six reconnaissance aircraft were based within reach at 
Saigon and Soktran, in southern Indo-China. AH this, of course, 
was unknown to Admiral Phillips, but it made his chances of suc- 
cess slender in the extreme, even if he had achieved the surprise at 
which he aimed at the moment of arrival. 

The British squadron, known as Force Z and comprising the Prince 
of Woks, Repulse, and the destroyers Electra, Express, Vampire^ and 
TeneJos, sailed from Singapore in the evening of 8th December. 
During the early afternoon of the pth, Force Z was sighted and 
reported by the Japanese submarine 7.6*5, and during the same 
evening three Japanese aircraft were sighted from the Prince of 
Wales. It was obvious that all chance of surprise had already been 
lost. Admiral Phillips continued on his northerly course for another 
hour and then altered westwards towards Singora- It was not until 
another hour and a quarter later, at 8.15 p.m., that he finally aban- 
doned the operation and turned for home. 


How near he was to action on this evening only became apparent 
when the Japanese records became available for study after the war- 
Warned by the submarine sighting report, four heavy cruisers under 
Admiral Kurita were steering south-eastward to rejoin the battle- 
fleet. At the moment when Admiral Phillips altered course towards 
Singora they were but fifteen miles to the northward of him and a 
continuation of his course for only five minutes more would have 
led to contact, possibly even to a repetition of the battle of Matapan, 
in which the Italian heavy cruisers had suffered so severely at the 
hands of British capital ships. 

Equally possible, of course, was a foretaste of what in fact was to 
occur on the following day. The Japanese 22nd Air Flotilla, highly 
trained and based at Saigon, received the signal from /. 65 at about 
4.0 p.m. They were then about to take off for Singapore, loaded 
with bombs. Hurriedly they changed their bombs for torpedoes, 
and by 6.0 p.m. were airborne in search of Force Z. In the rapidly 
gathering darkness they failed to find the ships and returned to base 
to await another chance on the morrow. 

While Force Z was steaming homewards through the night a 
signal was received from Singapore reporting a Japanese landing 
at Kuantan, half-way down the Malayan coast. The Commander-in- 
Chief decided to investigate, and at dawn on the loth was approach- 
ing the land at twenty-five knots. The Repulse sighted and reported 
an enemy reconnaissance aircraft, but Admiral Phillips was not to 
be deterred. Shortly before nine o'clock in the morning the Express 
which had been detached to investigate Kuantan, rejoined the fleet 
with the report of "complete peace" there, and the Commander-in- 
Chief then altered course to the northward to investigate a tug 
which had been sighted towing a string of barges. The time was 
then a little after 10.0 a*m. 

In the meantime the enemy had not been inactive. The Japanese 
Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Kondo, was well aware of the 
movements of Force Z from the various shadowing reports he had re- 
ceived on the afternoon and evening of the 9th. His plan was to attack 
at dawn with all available naval aircraft and to complete the destruc- 
tion with the battle-fleet, which he was bringing south at its best speed. 


The shadowing aircraft lost touch during the night, but another 
Japanese submarine, L58, sighted Force Z shortly before 2.30 a.m. 
on the morning of the loth. She attacked with five torpedoes, all of 
which missed and none of which was sighted by the British Fleet. 
She lost touch soon after 3.0 a.m., but aircraft from Saigon were 
ready to take up the task. A small reconnaissance group of twelve 
aircraft took off at 5.0 a.m., followed an hour later by the whole 
striking force of eighty-four aircraft, fifty armed with torpedoes and 
thirty-four with bombs. 

It was only as they were returning from a deep and fruitless 
search to the south that they first sighted, and bombed, the TeneJos, 
which had been detached earlier and was about 140 miles to the 
southward of the Prince of Wales. It was then a minute or two after 
10.0 a.m. Twenty-five minutes later a shadowing aircraft was seen 
from the Prince of Wales. It reported her to the striking force, and 
from that moment on until the end, a couple of hours later, the 
British ships were never out of sight of Japanese aircraft. Their 
ordeal was upon them. 

The action can perhaps best be visualised during its eighty 
minutes of conflict by the signals which were received in the War 
Room at Singapore during the early afternoon of loth December. 10 
They tell the tragic story in a shattering crescendo of disaster. 

Time of 

Receipt From To Message 

1204 Repulse Any British Enemy aircraft bombing. 


1240 Prince of Wales EMERGENCY. Have been struck 

by a torpedo on port side. Repulse 
hit by i torpedo* Send destroyers* 

1304 S.O. Force Z n EMERGENCY. Send all available 

1310 Ekctra MOST IMMEDIATE. H.MS* 

Prince of Woks hit by 4 torpedoes, 
Repulse sunk. Send destroyers. 

1310 S.<X Force Z w MOST IMMEDIATE. HM& 

Prince of Woks disabled and oat of 

1311 Prince of Woks EMERGENCY. Send all 


i 3 i? C.-in-C MOST IM MEDIATE. Am dis- 

Eastern Fleet embarking men not required for 

fighting ships. Send ? ? fast as pos- 

1317 Electra MOST IMMEDIATE. Send 


1321 Electra MOST IMMEDIATE. H.M.S. 

Prince of WaUs sunk* 

As the first message from the Repulse was received in Singapore, 
fighters were ordered to the scene. Five of them took off from 
Sembawang within seven minutes of the receipt of the signal in 
Air Headquarters, but already they were too late. They arrived on 
the scene as the Prince of Wales rolled over and sank, and flew over 
the destroyers during their work of rescue. From the Repulse 42 
officers and 754 men out of a total complement of 1,309 were picked 
up; from the Prince of Wales 90 officers and 1,195 ratings were 
rescued out of 1,612. 

There remains one last glimpse of this sad disaster. It is from the 
report of one of the fighter pilots, made to Admiral Sir Geoffrey 
Layton, who assumed command of the Far East Fleet on the death 
of Admiral Phillips. "I had the privilege to be the first aircraft to 
reach the crews of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse after they 
had been sunk. I say the privilege, for, during the next hour while 
I flew low over them, I witnessed a show of that indomitable spirit 
for which the Royal Navy is so famous. I have seen shows of spirit 
in this war over Dunkirk, during the 'Battle of Britain", and in the 
London night raids, but never before have I seen anything com- 
parable with what I saw- yesterday. I passed over thousands who 
had been through an ordeal the greatness of which they alone can 
understand, for it is impossible to pass on one's feelings in disaster 
to others. . . . After an hour lack of petrol forced me to leave, but 
during that hour I had seen many men in dire danger waving, 
cheering, and joking as if they were holiday-makers at Brighton 
waving at a low flying aircraft. It shook me, for here was something 
above human nature. I take off my hat to them, for in them I saw 
the spirit which wins wars." 11 

Such doubts as may have still existed as to the Japanese efficiency 


in the air had now received their answer. Within three days of the 
outbreak of war they had not only smashed the United States 
Pacific Fleet as it lay at anchor in Pear! Harbour, but had also 
accomplished a feat at sea which no other belligerent nation had 
achieved in more than two years of war. Operating over 400 miles 


A'anAuip #^ 

L Sn^'" 



from their base, they had sunk two capital ships at sea, one of them 
a fine, modern battleship but recently completed and commissioned. 
The whole attack lasted less than two hours, and as the Japanese 
aircraft flew homewards, having lost no more than three of their 
number, they could feel well pleased at their forenoon's work* 

But they had done more than sink battleships. They had removed, 
in two devastating strokes, almost the entire Allied sea power in the 


Far Eastern theatre. And with that gone, all was gone. There was 
little left now beyond the three American carriers which had es- 
caped the holocaust at Pearl Harbour and a few cruisers, destroyers, 
and submarines to dispute the Japanese advance through the rich 
chain of islands which lay to the southward. Rice, oil, rubber, tin 
almost all the raw materials of which they stood in need were to be 
found in plenty in those islands. 

Bereft of the sustaining force of sea power, the Allied military 
and air power collapsed like a house of playing-cards. Last-ditch 
actions in Hong Kong, in Malaya, in Singapore Island, and in the 
Phillipine Islands could not stay the headlong enemy thrust, for 
Japanese command of the sea throughout the area was now absolute. 
No supplies and no reinforcements could get through to the be- 
leaguered Allied garrisons, and one after the other they fell to the 
victorious enemy. Far away to the south, even Australia and New 
Zealand could now feel the cold breath of impending peril. 

The first distinct formulation of an Allied strategy in the face of 
these maritime disasters was the creation of a united command 
throughout the South- West Pacific. The Combined Chiefs of Staff 
at Washington, with the agreement of the Australian, Dutch, U.K., 
and U.S. Governments, produced a directive on 3rd January, 1942," 
which set out the strategic concept of the new command* This was: 

(a) To hold the Malaya barrier (defined as Malay Peninsula, 
Sumatra, Java, North Australia) as the basic defensive posi- 
tion of the area, and to operate sea, land, and air forces in as 
great a depth as possible forward of that barrier in order to 
oppose the Japanese southward advance. 

(i) To hold Burma and Australia as essential support positions 
for the area, with Burma as additionally essential for the 
defence of India and the support of China. 

(r) To re-establish communications through the Dutch East 
Indies with Luzon, in order to support General MacArthur 
in the Philliplnes. 

(ff) To maintain essential communications within the area. 


(Above) The magazines of the battleship Barham exploding after she had been 
torpedoed by a U-boat in the Mediterranean. The ship can be seen lying right 
over on her side in the water. 

(Below) Convoy to Malta. Wounded men of the cruiser Manchester torpedoed 
by an enemy M.T.B., are brought up on deck before the ship is abandoned 

(Photographs: Impend War Museum.) 

(Above) The tanker Ohio> deep in the water, reaches Grand Harbour after her 
ordeal in a Malta convoy. 

(Behw) The invasion of North Africa. One of the troop transports off Oran 
is protected by a smoke-screen. 

(Photographs: Imperial War Museum.} 

General Sir Archibald Wavell was appointed supreme comman- 
der and took over his duties on 1 5th January, but he was fighting 
a losing battle from the first. Before arriving in the area he tele- 
graphed to the Chiefs of Staff in London asking what resources he 
could expect with which to carry out his task. The reply he received 
was to the effect that the Chiefs of Staff themselves did not know." 
It was hardly an encouraging start, for the forces in the area were 
already fully committed and still desperately thin. 

The pattern of Japanese strategy, as revealed in their advance 
through the islands, was based on a close co-ordination of sea, air, 
and land power. Almost all their operations followed this patten^ a 
period of long-range bombing of the main objective, limited am- 
phibious or airborne operations to seize nearby airfields in order to 
cover the main landings, and then the arrival of the troop convoys 
with heavy naval escort and support. The little that now remained 
of Allied naval force in the theatre was powerless to interfere 
effectively against this methodical and ordered advance, while the 
aircraft which General Wavell disposed were far too few and too dis- 
persed to stem the Japanese tide. Day by day the tale of disaster grew. 

By the end of January the enemy were in possession of the oil 
centres of Balikpapan and Tarakan in Borneo, they were ashore in 
the Celebes, they had captured Rabaul in New Britain, Kavieng in 
New Ireland, and Kieta in Bougainville Island, in the Solomons. 
At the beginning of February Surabaya and Madang, in Java, were 
heavily bombed, the traditional sign of forthcoming assault. By the 
I4th Palembang and its great oil refinery was in their hands, and the 
subsequent occupation of Sumatra was but a matter of time. By 
that move the island of Java was outflanked, and the four main 
straits which linked the Java Sea with the outer oceans came under 
Japanese control. 

All the conditions for the attack on Java were completed by 25th 
February, for on that day the Dutch island of Bafi fell Its airfield 
was within 150 miles of the naval base at Surabaya, and from it the 
Japanese could provide air cover for their invasion forces. The next 
move, according to the Japanese pattern, should be the sailing of 
the assault troops. And on that same day a report was received at 


Surabaya from General MacArthur, still holding out in the Philip- 
pines, that a large convoy of over a hundred ships had been sighted 
near the entrance to the Makassar Strait. 14 It was but a compara- 
tively short run down from there into the Java Sea. 

It was with the intention of attacking this convoy that the Dutch 
Rear-Admiral Doorman sailed from Surabaya in command of a 
mixed force of cruisers and destroyers. They were almost all that 
were left now. British, Australian, Dutch, and American ships 
comprised the squadron of five cruisers and nine destroyers, and 
they put to sea without time to develop even a common signals plan. 
Their complete lack of integration as a fighting force was a handicap 
under any conditions; pitted against an enemy as efficient and as 
well-trained as the Japanese Navy, their chances of success were 
negligible from the outset. 

A sweep through the southern part of the Java Sea on the 2yth 
revealed no trace of the enemy convoy and on the afternoon of that 
day Admiral Doorman decided to return to Surabaya to refuel. As 
he was about to enter harbour, new reports of two convoys came 
in and he at once reversed his course in search of the enemy. The 
British destroyer Electra, leading the line, sighted smoke at about 
4.0 p.m., and within a few minutes action was joined with a strong 
enemy force of four cruisers and twelve destroyers. 

The action was begun at long range and remained inconclusive 
until the British cruiser Exeter was hit in a boiler room and her 
speed severely reduced. Admiral Doorman led his other cruisers 
between her and the enemy, making smoke, and ordered the three 
British destroyers to counter-attack. As they came out of the smoke, 
the EUctra was hit in her boiler room and all steam test. She came 
to a standstill, a sitting target for the Japanese destroyers. She 
fought back to the end, but one by one her guns were silenced and 
finally, riddled by enemy shellfire, she turned slowly over and sank. 

Darkness was failing as the damaged Exeter was ordered back to 
Surabaya, but tfae remainder of the force altered course to the 
northward to try to work round the Japanese escort and get at the 
convoy. The Japanese admiral, however, not only had his convoy 
well clear of the scene of action, but had also received reinforce- 


ments. He was, moreover, excellently served by his air reconnais- 
sance; and while Admiral Doorman had little idea of the where- 
abouts of his enemy in the gathering darkness, his opponent, 
Admiral Nishimura, knew exactly the position of the Allied forces. 
The end was a foregone conclusion. Two Dutch cruisers, the 
de Ruyter and Java, and the British destroyer Jupiter were sunk. 
The remainder managed to break away successfully to find a 
temporary refuge in Batavia and Surabaya, 

But the end had not yet been reached. The Japanese, controlling 
all the exits of the Java Sea, held these remaining ships in a trap 
whose jaws had to be forced if they were to escape. The four 
American destroyers of Admiral Doorman's force succeeded in 
slipping unobserved through the narrow channel between Bali and 
Java and reached Australia in safety. The remainder were not so 
fortunate. The Australian cruiser Perth, accompanied by the U.S. 
cruiser Houston, attempted to escape by the Sunda Strait and ran 
straight into the Japanese invasion fleet. They succumbed after a 
most gallant fight against tremendous odds. The Exeter, the des- 
troyer Encounter, and the U.S. destroyer Pope also tried the Sunda 
Strait, sailing from Surabaya at dusk on the 2$th* At dawn on ist 
March the sea was clear and hopes began to rise that the way might 
be open. They were doomed to disappointment. At 8.0 sum. smoke 
jivas sighted on the horizon, and very soon its source was revealed 
as a strong force of Japanese cruisers and destroyers. The last battle 
of the Exeter and her two destroyers was as bitter and as gallandy 
fought as was that of the Perth and the Houston in the same waters 
during the previous night. 

The road to Java was now completely open. Japanese forces 
landed at each end of the long island on ist Match, virtually un- 
opposed. There were no Allied ships to dispute the landings, none 
to stop the build-up of men and supplies with which to nourish the 
assault. Within a week Java had fallen, and its immense riches were 
firmly in the grasp of greedy Japanese fingers. The last link in the 
Malaya Barrier, on which it had been hoped to hold the enemy, had 
gone, and the threat to the Australian mainland was patent 

Nothing Kke this had ever been seen in war before. In three short 

21 1 

months, in battle against two of the world's great powers, the 
Japanese had staged an advance of more than 3,000 miles and had 
shattered all opposition at infinitesimal cost to themselves. Wherever 
their troops had landed they were in firm and complete control, 
wherever their ships had fought they had gained annihilating vic- 
tories. The Japanese had won an empire by whirlwind conquest 
and they were still hungry for more. 

But the bitter cup of defeat had not even yet been drained to its 
dregs by the Allies. The Japanese plan of conquest included Burma 
as a western bastion to their new empire, and already an army was 
on the march. The capture of Rangoon on 8th March and of Akyab 
on the 3 ist guaranteed its southern flank from interference by the 
British Eastern Fleet, now re-forming in the Indian Ocean, and the 
occupation of the Andaman Islands on 23rd March gave Japan the 
entry into those waters. An obvious corollary was a naval attack 
into the Indian Ocean to serve the new British Fleet there with the 
same medicine that had been administered to the American ships 
at Pearl Harbour. 

With the sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse off Malaya, 
the Admiralty had turned with new vigour to the task of building 
up a fleet in the East, It was a matter of immediate necessity. The 
Indian Ocean had sprung suddenly into vital prominence with the 
Japanese entry into the war, for on the safe passage of the supply 
ships and troop transport across it would depend the ability to 
assemble the forces which would one day be needed to drive the 
Japanese back. 

It was desperately hard to find the ships. The U-boats were back 
in the Atlantic in force, and there was no hope of finding ships there 
which could be spared for the new campaigns in the East. The 
convoys to North Russia across the Arctic were a new commitment 
which could not be abandoned, and with the passage of each convoy 
the opposition was growing. In the Mediterranean the pressure was 
equally severe and already the fleet there was cut to the bone. Yet 
somehow the ships had to be found, for too much now was at stake. 
To lose the shipping routes of the Indian Ocean by default was 
quite unthinkable. 


Towards the end of March Admiral Sir James Somerville arrived 
in Colombo to hoist his flag as the new Commander-in-Chief of 
the Eastern Fleet. It comprised the two new aircraft carriers 
Formidable and Indomitable, the battleship Warspite, which had 
flown Admiral Cunningham's flag for so long in the Mediter- 
ranean, the small, elderly carrier Hermes, four slow, old, and poorly 
protected R-class battleships, seven cruisers, including the 8-inch 
Dorsetshire and Cornwall, sixteen destroyers, and seven submarines. 
As bases for this fleet there were Colombo and Trincomalee in 
Ceylon, and Addu Atoll, in the Maldive Islands, a new base con- 
structed in secret largely by the labour of the highly skilled Mobile 
Naval Base Defence Organisation of the Royal Marines. 

Into the Indian Ocean came a strong force of Japanese ships, 
bent on dealing to Admiral Somerville's fleet a blow as devastating 
as that which had crippled the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl 
Harbour. Admiral Somerville, however, was expecting it, and his 
ships, instead of lying in harbour, were at sea to the southward of 
Ceylon, where he hoped for an opportunity to launch a Fleet Air 
Arm attack from the Formidable and Indomitable against the Japan- 
ese carriers. Intelligence reports had indicated that the Japanese blow 
would fall on ist April, but nothing had occurred by the evening 
of the 2nd and the Commander-in-Chief came to the conclusion 
that the reports were incorrect. He retired to Addu Atoll to refuel, 
sending the Dorsetshire to Colombo to refit and the Cornwall to 
accompany her and then to join the escort of an Australian troop 
convoy. The Hermes, which was intended to support a planned 
assault on Madagascar, was detached to Trincomalee to prepare for 
the operation. 

It was while his ships were refuelling at Addu Atoll that a sighting 
report of Japanese ships came through. It was of Admiral Nagumo, 
with five carriers, four battleships, three cruisers, and twelve des- 
troyers approaching Ceylon, though the report reaching the 
Commander-in-Chief was not sufficiently definite to indicate its 
foil composition. Admiral Somerville at once sailed from Addu 
Atoll, but it was now too late to intercept. Colombo, in which 
Nagumo had hoped to find the British Fleet, was empty of the big 


prize, and though a fair amount of damage was done to the port by 
the Japanese carrier aircraft, the enemy were made to pay heavily 
for it by the exertions of defending fighters. 

Admiral Nagumo, having missed the British Fleet, sent his 
reconnaissance planes far and wide in search of it* It was, perhaps, 
fortunate that they failed to find it, for Nagumo's five carriers 
carried a devastating punch arid Britain could not now afford any 
repetition of the disaster which had befallen the Prince of Woks and 
Repulse. The ships so recently sent to the Indian Ocean had only 
been collected by cutting other requirements to the bone. If they 
were lost now, there were no others with which to replace them. 

The Cornwall and Dorsetshire had sailed from Colombo as soon 
as news of the sighting of the Japanese ships had been received, and 
were on their way to join the Commander-in-Chief as he steamed 
up from Addu AtolL They were sighted by the Japanese aircraft 
searching for the main fleet. Within an hour or two some fifty 
bombers were overhead. The two ships were overwhelmed by the 
weight of the attack and both of diem, very heavily hit^ were sunk. 

Four days later the Japanese returned. Their target this time was 
Trincomalee, and they caused serious damage in the port Again the 
reconnaissance aircraft searched for Admiral Somerville's fleet and 
again foiled to find it. History, however, was once more to repeat 
itself. Though they missed the feet they found the Hermes y and they 
sank her almost as easily as they had sunk the Cornwall and Dorset- 
shire four days previously* 

Over the whole wide area of conflict, in the Mediterranean and 
the Atlantic as well as in the south-west Pacific, the AlEed skies 
were black indeed. For the time the tide was running strongly for 
the enemies, European as well as Asiatic. As the British Prime 
Minister surveyed the dismal scene in all the various theatres of war, 
it must have been with a heavy heart that he wrote to President 
Roosevelt, "When I reflect how I have longed and prayed for the en- 
try of the United States into the war, I find it difficult to realise how 
gravely our British affairs have deteriorated since December 7th**. 1 * 

The U.S. President could, with almost equal truth, have written 
similar words back to Mr. ChurcfailL 


Chapter 9 


FROM the state of quasi-war, which can perhaps best be dated 
by President Roosevelt's nation-wide "Emergency" broad- 
cast of 27th May, 1941,* the United States, with the declaration 
of war against Germany and Italy by Congress on nth December, 
emerged as a fully-fledged combatant in the Atlantic. The declara- 
tion presented to Raeder and Doenitz the chance for which they had 
long been waiting. Hitler, in the expectation of a favourable decision 
in Russia by the end of the year, had forbidden operations in 
American waters during the quasi-war period, but no such ban 
could hold good now. On the day following the U.S. declaration 
of war Hitler and Raeder met together in Berlin and reached speedy 
agreement on the desirability of sending U-boats to attack the 
shipping along the U.S. coast. 2 Only six were immediately available, 
but many more were expected to become operational very shortly 
as the massive building programmes, started at the end of 1940, 
began to bear fruit. 

What Doenitz, commanding the U-boats, lacked in quantity for 
the start of this new offensive he made up for in quality. He chose 
his six most experienced commanders for the task, and their imme- 
diate success was, from the U.S. point of view, "both unprecedented 
and humiliating**.* The first of the U-boats arrived in January "1942, 
and others followed quickly. They wasted no time. The sinking of 
the British passenger ship Cyclops by 17. 223 on i2th January 
heralded the great assault, and no day passed without a heavy toll 


exacted from the virtually defenceless ships as they made their 
coastwise passage. 

It was for the U-boat captains what they called their "second 
happy time". In spite of British experience, made fully available 
through Rear-Admiral Ghormley, the President's special naval 
observer in Britain, the United States had made no plans for the 
institution of convoy for the great volume of shipping that flowed 
up and down between the Gulf and Caribbean ports and the main 
harbours of the U.S. eastern seaboard. Instead, they relied on air and 
surface patrol of the shipping lanes and, later, the employment of 
hunter-killer groups in special areas. Neither was effective, and the 
terrible toll mounted alarmingly. What was particularly galling was 
the very high proportion of tankers, perhaps {he most precious of 
all ships in time of war, included in the losses. Well might Doenitz, 
with perfect truth, exclaim: "Our submarines are operating close 
inshore along the coast of the United States of America, so that 
bathers and sometimes entire coastal cities are witnesses to that 
drama of war, whose visual climaxes are constituted by the red 
glorioles of blazing tankers." 4 

From her own meagre resources Great Britain offered help. Ten 
corvettes and twenty-four anti-submarine trawlers were turned over 
to bring some relief to the problem, but in the absence of convoy 
there was little material benefit from this transference. The reluc- 
tance of the American Navy to institute convoy, even when pn>- 
vided with, as Admiral Ghormley expressed it, "information fresh 
from the laboratory of war, and of priceless value to national 
defence***, was difficult to understand. It was also particularly galling 
to Britain, who depended for her very existence on all those imports 
which were being sunk with such impunity. Admiral Sir Percy 
Nobfe, responsible as G>rnmander-in-Chief Western Approaches 
for the Atlantic battle, wrote to the First Sea Lord on 8th March: 
"The Western Approaches Command finds itself in the position 
to-day of escorting convoys safely over to the American eastern 
seaboard and then finding that many of the ships thus escorted are 
easy prey to the U-boats off the American coast or ia the Caribbean/** 
It was a situation which, though extremely delicate as reflecting on 


the conduct of maritime war by an Ally in her own waters, had 
somehow to be brought to an end. Both Admiral Pound, the First 
Sea Lord, and Mr. Churchill, the Prime Minister, brought what 
pressure they could to bear on their opposite numbers in the United 
States, and early in May a partial convoy system was introduced. 
The result was electrifying. In those areas where convoy was insti- 
tuted the sinkings declined almost to vanishing-point, with the 
exception of independently routed ships and stragglers from the 
convoys. This partial introduction of convoy along the American 
coast was made possible only by the diversion of two complete 
British escort groups from the Atlantic, which in fact reduced the 
Atlantic convoy cycle from six to seven days. That, however, was a 
price well worth paying if it brought to a stop the holocaust in 
American waters. It was to be another three months before convoy 
was fully to cover the whole area, including the Gulf of Mexico and 
the Caribbean, but by the end of July the U-boats were withdrawing. 
It was convoy, and convoy alone, that had beaten them. 

Admiral Doenitz had calculated that an average of 800,000 tons 
of Allied ships sunk each month was more than sufficient to produce 
an Axis victory. 7 During the first seven months of 1942 the total 
sinkings by Axis U-boats were 68 1 ships of over three and a half 
million tons, a monthly average of just over half a million tons. The 
Germans, relying on the optimistic reports of their U-boat captains, 
thought the figure much higher and, indeed, above their monthly 
target* Yet even the actual rate of sinkings was well above the 
replacement tonnage that could be provided by new merchant ship 
building, and a continuance at that rate would inevitably have 
gravely impaired the Allied capacity to continue the struggle. 

By the summer of 1942 Britain had made great strides along the 
road of efficient merchant ship protection. Many costly lessons had 
Been learned, some more were still to be learned, but in general the 
correct pattern of anti-submarine warfare had emerged. In March 
1942 the Naval Staff at the Admiralty prepared for the Americans 
a review of all British experience in the Atlantic battle so far, which 
was summarised under four main headings. 

(a) The comparative failure of hunting forces. 


(i) The great value of aircraft in convoy protection, 

(c) The supreme importance of adequate training and practice. 

(<sQ The value of efficient radar. 

It was in these four headings, which might well have been 
elevated to the status of cardinal principles, that the ultimate safety 
of the Merchant Navy depended. 

The limitations of the hunting forces were, perhaps, the hardest 
cross of all for the Navy to bear. "To go to sea," wrote the Naval 
Staff, "to hunt down and destroy the enemy makes a strong appeal 
to every naval officer. It gives a sense of initiative and of the offen- 
sive that is lacking in the humdrum business of convoy protection. 
But the difficulties of locating a U-boat intent on evasion are apt 
to be forgotten; the odds are all in favour of the U-boat, and the 
anti-submarine hunting force is impotent/** 

Yet, although the correct doctrine was thus early recognised, 
there were still many intractables to hinder and deky the full per- 
formance of the task. While the United States were wiestBng with 
their own shipping problems during the U-boat onslaught along 
their coasts, they were also actively engaged in bringing across the 
Atlantic an army to Britain. The many troop convoys, together 
with the weapons and supplies needed in modern military war, were 
adding a heavy burden to the essential Atlantic traffic, already hard 
enough pressed as it was to keep Great Britain supplied. The British 
belt had to be tightened another notch or two as the great building- 
up of f orce proceeded. 

This was, however, but one of the intractables. Otbers were the 
shortage of "long-legged" escorts, of trained oews> and above aD 
of very long-range aircraft. The new frigates, admirably designed 
for the Atlantic battle, began to come forward during 1942, though 
more slowly than had been hoped Anti-submarine training of the 
escort groups was still being hampered by the constant operational 
need to commit every available ship and man to the battle as soon 
as possible, though in this respect there was a considerable improve- 
ment on earlier years. The very long-range Liberators, so urgently 
needed to provide air raver for the convoys in the distant wastes 
of the Atlantic, were irritatingiy slow in arrival and added 


to the perplexities and difficulties of the battle at this crucial 

Brooding over the whole Atlantic scene, and dark with menace, 
was the constant increase in the number of operational U-boats 
available to the enemy* During the first six months of 1942 the 
operational strength rose from 91 to 140, while the U-boat sinkings 
by Allied forces totalled no more than thirty. It was not a happy 
picture to contemplate from a short-term viewpoint. 

Over the longer view, however, there were gleams of light to 
point towards a rosier dawn. The "hedgehog", an ahead-throwing 
mortar, removed one of the great drawbacks of the depth-charge 
dropping method by enabling the attacking ship to hold a U-boat 
in its asdic beam right up to the moment of attack. In all earlier 
attacks there had been an appreciable time-gap between the final 
asdic contact and the dropping of the charges while the ship herself 
passed over the U-boat and steamed clear of the area of explosion. 
The increase in accuracy of attack which the "hedgehog" brought 
was to some extent minimised by the fact that it fired contact charges 
which required a direct hit to produce a kill, but the "hedgehog" 
itself paved the way to the "squid", which combined the killing 
power of the full-depth charge with the ahead-firing method. Asdic 
and "squid", with radar and aircraft as partners, were to prove a 
deadly combination. 

There were other advances, too, which were to play their part 
in the battle. High-frequency wireless direction-finders were fitted 
in some of the escort vessels, enabling them to take the bearing of a 
U-boat's signals. It made the location of attacking U-boats far more 
rapid and effective than the previous reliance on the shore direction- 
finding stations only. At the same time there were three equally 
devastating advances in Coastal Command aircraft. The first was the 
fitting of radar sets which could pick up a surfaced U-boat at a 
consideiable range; the second was the equipping of the first 
squadron of "Leigh Light" aircraft, which would automatically 
illuminate the target at night a few moments before the attack; the 
third was the development of the shallow-setting depth charge for 
aircraft whkh enabled them to add U-boat killing as well as U-boat 


spotting and anti-U-boat reconnaissance to their accomplishments* 
As yet, however, the full harvest of these scientific advances was 
still for future gathering. At this particular moment in the war 
the first half of 1942 the balance in the Atlantic was still tipping 
towards the U-boats, and at times tipping much too heavily for 
comfort. The sombre battle under, on, and over the Atlantic waters 
was being fought with a cold fury and a savagery that knew no 
quarter; a battle of swift, unseen attack, of murderous thrust and 
counter-thrust. Through it all ran the merchant ships in ceaseless 
convoy, bringing to Britain the men, the arms, the oil, the raw 
materials, and the food on which depended, in the long run, the 
launching of the counter-offensive. Once before in the world's 
history had Europe lain beneath the heel of a conqueror, and it was 
then, in 1810, that the American Senator Timothy Pickering, at a 
dinner given to the British Minister, had drunk a toast to *'the 
world's last hope Britain's fast-anchored isle". Now, in 1942, the 
same toast was being drunk, for Britain was to be the spring-board 
of re-entry into tortured Europe. That her anchors held fast at this 
crux of the war, that the forces of liberation could gather and train 
for the great day to come, was due to the devotion and fortitude of 
the Merchant Navies of the Allies and to the anti-submarine escorts 
of all the free nations that shepherded them through these death- 
strewn waters. 

The preoccupation of the British and Canadian escort forces with 
the passage of supplies to Britain was matched farther south by an 
equal preoccupation of the Mediterranean Fleet and Force H in 
keeping Malta supplied. That gallant island, sore beset during the 
reverses which had befallen our land forces in North Africa, was still 
proving a most irritating thorn in the Axis flank. In February 1942, 
as Rommel's advance overran our Cyrenaican airfields, the scale 
of enemy bombing attacks on Malta was stepped up considerably, 
reaching a dimax of ferocity in April and May- In the eyes of the 
War Cabinet and the Chiefs of Staff so violent an attack could mean 
but one thing, a softening-up process for its eventual capture by the 
enemy. Such an assault was indeed planned under the code name of 


Operation "Herkules", but the calls of Rommel for reinforcements 
and supplies in Cyrenaica and Egypt made its achievement impos- 
sible. Nor was the importance of its capture fully realised by the 
German Army leaders. "As we now have Tobruk", wrote Jodl, 
Chief of the Army High Command, on 22nd June, 1942, "we no 
longer require Malta." The German and Italian troops intended for 
"Herkules" were sent to Rommel, and on 2ist July all orders for 
"Herkules" were cancelled. 

This, however, was not known in Britain and it was in the light 
of an expected Axis attempt at capture, and in consequence of the vast 
destruction being caused by the heavy air raids, that the passage of 
essential supplies to Malta reached a new urgency during 1942. Too 
much was at stake to allow the island to be lost without a desperate 
fight. In enemy hands it would give him a virtually impregnable 
bridge for the running of supplies to his North African armies; in 
British hands it could still shelter naval and air forces with which 
to harass the Axis ships that carried them. The supply route from 
Italy to the North African ports was ever a nightmare to the enemy, 
and Malta was the "bogy" which sp often troubled the Axis dream 
of a North African victory. 

Valiantly as the defenders of Malta fought against this Axis 
onslaught, the problem of running in supplies in sufficient bulk to 
sustain them was beset with tremendous difficulties. Command of 
the sea and of the air above it in the central Mediterranean were both 
firmly held in Axis hands, and it was certain that every attempt to 
run a convoy to the beleaguered island would need to be conducted 
as a major fleet operation. During 1942 four convoys reached Malta, 
two from Alexandria and two from Gibraltar, but all of them 
suffered very severe losses in transit, both in merchant ships and 
escorts. Two others were forced to turn back by the severity of the 
attack upon them. 

Apart from these convoys, supplies were brought in by sub- 
marines and by the two fast minelayers Manxman and Welshman, 
which relied on their great speed of thirty-six knots to get them 
through* Twenty small cargoes arrived by submarine and six by the 
minelayers during the first eight months of 1942, but welcome as 


they were, they did little more than touch the fringe of the major 
problem of supply. The provision of fighter aircraft for Malta's 
defence was less difficult, for these could be taken by carrier to 
within flying reach of the island and then flown off to complete the 
journey by air. H.M. ships Argus^ Eagle, and Furious, and the 
U.S.S. Wasp despatched some 350 Spitfires and Hurricanes between 
them. But in spite of all this, the problem of supplying Malta with 
all that it needed could be solved only by the arrival of merchant 
ships carrying the island's necessities in bulk. 

A convoy from Alexandria to Malta had got through in January, 
a second in February had been forced to turn back. In March, 
Admiral Cunningham planned to send a third. It was his last big 
operation before being relieved as Commander-in-Chief by Admiral 
Sir Henry Harwood, and he enrolled the support of the Army and 
the Royal Air Force to give it every chance of success in its mission. 
Feint attacks in the desert to threaten the enemy's forward airfields 
were the Army's contribution; bombing attacks on airfields in Crete 
and Cyrenaica, and the provision of fighter cover over the convoy 
to the limit of endurance, were the Royal Air Force's. Both Were 
nobly performed. The convoy itself three' merchant ships and the 
naval auxiliary Breconshire sailed from Alexandria on 2oth March, 
with a small escort. It was joined the following morning by the main 
strength of the Mediterranean Fleet three cruisers, one anti-aircraft 
ship, ten large and six Hunt-class destroyers. On the next day the 
cruiser Penelope and the destroyer Legion joined the convoy from 
Malta to help to right it through the dangerous waters of the central 
Mediterranean. So far all had gone well, and the few air attacks made 
by Italian torpedo-carrying planes had been half-hearted and easily 

During the morning of this same day, 22nd March, Rear-Admiral 
Vian, in command of the escort, received a signal from a British 
submarine on patrol reporting the sailing of an Italian squadron. 
Judging from its position it should reach the convoy during the 
afternoon in the Gulf of Sirte, and Admiral Vian disposed his forces 
for action. A freshening south-easterly wind was beginning to 
knock up a heavy sea. 

Just after 1.30 p.m. a shadowing aircraft dropped a line of four 
red flares ahead of the convoy, obviously to signal its position to 
approaching ships. Half an hour later the look-out in the cruiser 
Eurycdus sighted smoke to the northward. Over the horizon came 
the enemy, the cruisers Gorilla and Trento (8-inch) and Giovanni 
Delia Bande Nera (6-inch), together with four destroyers, and 
Admiral Vian led his striking force out to engage them, at the same 
time making smoke to shield the convoy from view. In his deter- 
mination to get the convoy through to Malta he had already prac- 
tised his squadron in the tactics to be employed and the ships took 
up their battle formation without a hitch. This bold front seemed 
temporarily to dissuade the Italian force and they turned away after 
about ten minutes of firing at extreme range. 

Meantime the convoy was being subjected to a heavy and sus- 
tained bombing attack, this time by German aircraft. But the steady 
shooting of the anti-aircraft ship Carlisle and of the close escort of 
Hunt-class destroyers broke up the German formations and saved 
the merchant ships from damage. In the heavy sea then running the 
guns* crews on the destroyers' forecastles were drenched by the 
spray thrown up, and in spite of the slippery foothold played a 
noble part in holding the enemy at bay. 

As Rear-Admiral Vian led his striking force back to the convoy 
after driving off the Italian squadron, a new threat developed to the 
north-east. To join the cruisers of the first attack came the battleship 
Ltttorio with two more destroyers, to make a formidable squadron 
which could, if led with determination, annihilate both Rear- 
Admiral Vian's escorting force and the convoy. 

Once more extensive smoke-screens were laid to shroud the 
convoy from view, and the south-easterly wind drifted it up towards 
the enemy. It soon covered the whole area of battle, presenting to 
the slender defensive forces the inestimable advantages of surprise 
attacks on the enemy and at the same time a cloak of partial invisi- 
bility from the enemy's gunlayers. 

Rear-Admiral Vian, aware at once of his weakest point of de- 
fence, stood away to the eastward with his cruisers to head off a 
probable enemy attack from that quarter. It was the weather 


(Alwve) North Russian convoys. A tanker is set on fire by a German aircraft, 
and another ship is burning. An incident during the passage of Convoy PQ 18. 

(Below) H.M.S. Naira/ia, an escort carrier, pitching in a heavy sea off northern 

(Photographs: Imperial War Museum.) 

Naval landing craft passing the cruiser Mauritius on the way in to the 
beadies at Salerno. 

(Below) The Mediterranean victory. The surrendered Italian battleships Italia 
and Vinorio Veneto at anchor "under the guns of the fortress of Malta", 

(Photographs: Imperial War Museum^ 

position, so much beloved in battle during the days of sail, and 
on this day it was the position from which the defensive smoke- 
screen would be of no avail. Maybe the Italian admiral was im- 
patient to reach the convoy, maybe the importance of the weather 
gauge was not so apparent to him as it was to Rear-Admiral Vian, 
but he decided to attack from the west. Thus, as he stood in towards 
the vital convoy, there were only British destroyers to bar his way. 

By this time the sea had risen appreciably and the Sikh, Lively, 
and Hero, as they closed to engage the enemy, were rolling and 
pitching violently and their decks were swept with solid water as the 
waves broke over them. They attacked their overwhelming adver- 
saries with guns and torpedoes three destroyers pitted against a 
battleship, three cruisers, and six destroyers and at the same time 
extended the smoke-screen westward to cover the now threatened 
merchantmen. But hard as they fought they could not prevent the 
Italian squadron from working round to the west and thus opening 
up a direct route to the convoy down to the south. 

It was at this moment, when it seemed that the enemy must 
achieve his object, that out of the smoke-screen steamed Rear- 
Admiral Vian in the Cleopatra, accompanied by the Euryalus* He 
had returned from his search to the eastward, to make a dramatic 
appearance at the crucial moment. The two cruisers attacked the 
Littorio with torpedoes and forced her to turn away. Satisfied that 
the danger from the west was temporarily averted, the admiral 
turned back to the east once more to guard against attack from the 
most vulnerable quarter. 

Meanwhile, five more destroyers, attracted by the SikKs report, 
were coming up to join the battle in the west. They were ihejervis, 
Kelvin, Kingston, Kipling, and Legion, and they sighted the Littorio 
just after 6.30 p.m. at a range of 12,000 yards. Approaching through 
the smoke at full speed in line abreast, and under heavy fire from 
the enemy battleship and cruisers, they closed to a range of 6,000 
yards and swung round to fire a "broadside" of torpedoes. The 
enemy squadron turned away to avoid them, and once again, at the 
critical moment, the Cleopatra and Euryalus emerged from the 
smoke. Rear-Admiral Vian, finding the eastern sector still clear of 


the enemy, had returned to the battle in the west. For ten minutes 
the two cruisers fought a gun duel with the Italians, forcing them 
always away from the vital merchant ships. Finally, the enemy settled 
down resolutely on to a north-westerly course which took them 
away from the convoy and home to the security of their Italian 
bases. The Battle of Sirte was over and the convoy was saved. 9 

Yet, in spite of the victory, there was sadness in store. During the 
battle the convoy had been steering to the south, away from the 
threat of the enemy. This diversion inevitably delayed its time of 
arrival and, instead of reaching Malta in the dark hours before dawn, 
the sun was up while the merchant ships were still a few miles 
short of Grand Harbour. There the German bombers found them. 
One was hit and sunk twenty miles from the island. The naval 
auxiliary Breconshire was hit and disabled only eight miles off and 
was beached. The remaining two steamed triumphantly into 
Valletta, to the echoing cheers of the people of Malta, only to be 
both sunk later at their moorings before they could be fully un- 

This loss of supplies raised serious problems. If Malta was to be 
retained and its retention was of cardinal importance in the whole 
concept of Middle East strategy the supply crisis had somehow to 
be overcome. During April the enemy's air attacks reached a new 
pitch of violence, and the island's fighter defence was whittled away 
by serious losses. Another ferry trip by the Wasp and the Eagle 
early in May provided a reinforcement of sixty-two Spitfires, and 
these arrived just in time to turn the scale in the air battle. They 
flew in on the morning of 9th May, were armed and refuelled on 
arrival, and were airborne again later that same morning to meet the 
German bombers, of which they destroyed and damaged thirty. 
They followed it up on the loth by shooting down another sixty. 
Thereafter the scale of enemy air attack began to dwindle per- 

But Spitfires alone were not enough. Food and fuel and ammuni- 
tion were also needed, and they could only be brought in sufficient 
quantities in ships. In May the call of the Russian convoys for 
escorts was so insistent that Malta had to tighten her belt in patience, 


but by June it was now or never. A convoy had to get through to the 
island if it were to remain in British hands. 

A double operation was planned, a convoy of six ships from 
Gibraltar and one of eleven from Egypt, timed to reach Malta on 
consecutive days. It was hoped that this simultaneous operation 
would tempt the enemy to divide his forces so that at least one of the 
convoys might succeed. In the end two merchant ships of the 
Gibraltar convoy reached Malta, while the eastern convoy was 
forced to give up and return after serious losses. The pitifully small 
result from a very considerable naval effort was the measure of the 
opposition ranged against it by the enemy. 

For the eastern convoy the Mediterranean Fleet was strengthened 
by units of the Eastern Fleet, and the eleven merchant ships had an 
escort force of seven cruisers and twenty-six destroyers, with several 
smaller warships and the old, unarmed battleship Centurion mas- 
querading as a capital ship. In addition, nine submarines were in 
patrol areas to the north of the convoy route in order to intercept 
and to attack the Italian Fleet if it came out, while the maximum 
air striking force, both from Egypt and Malta, was to harass the 
Italian ships before they made contact. 

It was the lack of capital ships in the Mediterranean that was at 
heart the cause of failure in the passage of this convoy. Cruisers and 
destroyers could not possibly hold off Italian battleships, and in the 
hot days of a Mediterranean summer there was no hope of a repeti- 
tion of the stormy weather which had helped the March convoy to 
reach Malta. If the air striking force and the submarines failed to stop 
the Italian Fleet, then the convoy could not go through. 

Neither the airmen nor the submarines succeeded. Even though 
one Italian cruiser was crippled in the air attack and was later sunk 
by the submarine P. j5, the main body of the Italian Fleet came on 
undeterred. The convoy had to be turned, at least temporarily, and 
by the time the way was once again clear because of the return of the 
Italian ships to their bases, the escort had not enough ammunition 
left to meet the inevitable air attacks which it would still encounter 


in the approach to Malta. Throughout two long days the convoy 
had been subjected to vicious and continuous attack by German 


bombers, and almost every ship had fired nearly three-quarters of its 
entire outfit of anti-aircraft ammunition. 

The Italian Fleet never made contact with the convoy, never, in 
fact, approached within a hundred miles of it. But its presence in 
those waters, coupled with the fact that Rear-Admiral Vian, com- 
manding the escort, no longer had the advantage of exceptional 
weather conditions, as in March, with which to tackle battleships 
with his cruisers, made it suicidal to attempt to go on. The whole 
effort cost us one cruiser, three destroyers, and two merchant ships 
lost, and three cruisers, the Centurion, a corvette, and three merchant 
ships damaged. It had cost the enemy one cruiser sunk and the 
battleship Littorio damaged by an aircraft torpedo, but the cost to 
him was well worth the achievement of his main object in denying 
to Malta the supplies so desperately needed here. 

The western convoy had better fortune. Its main escort consisted 
of the battleship Malaya, the carriers Eagle and Argus, three cruisers, 
and seventeen destroyers. It encountered no opposition until it 
reached the narrow waters between Sardinia and Tunisia, There the 
first of the air attacks came in, and from then on there was no 
peace, though with little damage beyond one merchant ship sunk 
and one cruiser, the Liverpool, damaged by an aerial torpedo. At the 
entrance to the Sicilian narrows the main covering force turned 
back. Its part in the operation was completed, for battleships and 
carriers could not operate in narrow waters under the threat of 
nearby land-based aircraft. Beaufighters from Malta took over the 
air escort from the carriers, and the convoy, reduced by its single loss 
to five merchant ships, went on under a dose escort of nine destroy- 
ers and the anti-aircraft cruiser Cairo. 

Early next morning, with the convoy now about 150 miles from 
Malta, a force of two Italian cruisers and five destroyers was sighted 
hull down to the eastward. Five of the escorting destroyers the 
Bedouin, Itkuriel, Partridge, Matchless, and Marne steamed out to 
do batde whilst the remainder made smoke to shroud the convoy. 
With th^'merchant ships thus protected, the rest of the escort then 
came out to engage the enemy. 

In the running fight that followed, at times at almost point-blank 




range, the Bedouin and Partridge were both hit, as also were one 
Italian cruiser and one destroyer. In the end the enemy squadron 
was driven off, though later it returned to re-engage the damaged 

But the convoy had not escaped attack during this action. While 
the close escort was engaged with the enemy ships, German dive- 
bombers had found the convoy, sinking one ship and damaging 
another. A second heavy air attack came in at an unfortunate 
moment, just as the first escort of Malta Spitfires reached the end of 
their endurance and before the relief flight had arrived. They 
damaged one more merchant ship. 

The convoy was now reduced to four ships, of which two were 
cripples as a result of the air attack. Captain Hardy of the Cairo, 
commanding the escort, resolved to sacrifice these two ships so that 
the other two could go on at full speed for their final dash, and after 
their crews were removed they were sunk. 

One more trial remained before at last the harassed convoy 
reached the safety of Grand Harbour. All the entrances to the har- 
bour had been extensively mined and, by an error, the minesweepers 
which had accompanied the convoy to sweep it in arrived later than 
the other ships. Five of the escorting destroyers hit mines and 
though four were only slightly damaged the fifth sank before she 
could reach harbour. 10 

Two of the six merchant ships thus reached Malta, and the 
stores they carried brought a welcome, if temporary, relief from 
shortage and want. They kept tha island in the battle and denied to 
the enemy the great prize of capture, on which he had been set. But 
still more was necessary if Malta was to continue to keep her place 
in the strategical pattern, and plans were put in train for another 
similar operation. 

Before the Home Fleet could provide the escorts for this new 
convoy, they were required up in the Arctic, where another convoy 
to Russia needed their presence. With the conclusion of that opera- 
tion, back they came to Gibraltar, in August, in greater force than 
ever before. The full escort for the fourteen merchant ships of this 
new convoy consisted of two battleships, three carriers, six cruisers, 


one anti-aircraft cruiser, and twenty-four destroyers, to make of 
this the biggest of all the Mediterranean convoy operations. The 
enemy, aware from the unusual concentration of ships that such an 
operation was planned, greatly increased the strength of the German 
and Italian air forces in Sardinia and Sicily. 

The convoy followed the same pattern as the June one, with the 
capital ships and carriers turning back in the Narrows as soon as the 
convoy arrived within reach of fighter cover from Malta. As in the 
previous operation, this first part went reasonably well, except for 
the sinking of the elderly carrier Eagle by a torpedo from Z/.j/j. 

Apart from one merchant ship damaged and detached to take the 
inshore route round Cape Bon, the convoy reached the Sicilian 
Narrows intact. The main escort then turned back and the merchant 
ships continued their course with the close escort of three cruisers, 
the anti-aircraft cruiser, and thirteen destroyers. They had enjoyed 
good fortune so far, but now their luck was to desert them. 

In an attack by a U-boat the cruiser Nigeria was damaged and 
had to turn back to Gibraltar, the Cairo had her stern blown off and 
had to be sunk, and the tanker Ohio, of the convoy, was hit. As the 
convoy was turning to the southward away from the direction of the 
attack, German dive- and torpedo-bombers arrived overhead. Dusk 
had already fallen and the long-range fighters from Malta were at 
the end of their endurance. There was little defence against these 
aircraft, and they sank two and damaged one from out of the convoy. 

These losses themselves were not unduly severe, but what was 
unfortunate was the wide separation of the merchant ships which 
ensued as a result of the attacks. They were now no longer a convoy, 
.but strung out at wide intervals along the route to Malta. The 
cruisers and destroyers did their best to round up and protect the 
stragglers but, scattered over so large an area, they remained wide 
open to attack. And when the attack came, during the middle 
watch, it was disastrous. It was made by Italian motor torpedo 
boats, and they sank the cruiser Manchester and four merchantmen 
and damaged a fifth, all in the space of three hours. 

The convoy was now reduced to seven merchant ships, two of 
them damaged, and there was still a day's steaming ahead of them 


before they could reach Malta. A day's steaming meant a day's air 
attacks, and the enemy lost no time. By 8 a.m. the first raid was 
overhead, and one of the remaining seven merchant ships was hit 
several times and blown up. Two hours later the second raid came 
in, further damaging the Ohio y whose oil was vital to Malta, and 
disabling one other. Yet the ships struggled on, and that evening 
the leading three, one damaged and very low in the water, steamed 
slowly into the Grand Harbour. 

There remained three merchantmen at sea, all disabled. One of 
them was the Ohio with her vital cargo. At 7 p.jn. German bombers 
found one of the damaged ships and sank her; a second steamed 
safely into Grand Harbour on the following afternoon. That left 
only the Ohio. She was getting near now, in tow of a destroyer 
and a minesweeper. Another attack by bombers missed the tanker 
but parted the tow. It was passed again and the slow procession 
continued. Finally, during the morning of the next day, the Ohio 
passed between the breakwaters of Grand Harbour, and the oil 
that she carried, on which Malta depended for her continued 
defiance of the enemy, had arrived. 11 Her master, Captain D. W. 
Mason, was awarded the George Cross for his magnificent de- 
termination and skill in bringing his ship through. 

Such was the August convoy. Five ships out of fourteen had 
reached the island, and the price paid to get them there was an 
aircraft carrier, a cruiser, an anti-aircraft cruiser, and a destroyer. 
It had been a heavy cost in terms of ships and men lost, but it saved 
Malta from starvation and surrender. And in the light of the plans 
that were already afoot for new operations in this Mediterranean 
theatre of war, die arrival of those five successful merchant ships 
marked a turning-point* 

As one looks back at those years of battle and endeavour in the 
Middle Eastern campaign, two episodes stand out as the essential 
foundations on which were based the successes that were later to 
crown all the bitter fighting. 

The first was the capture of Massawa, the Italian naval base in the 
Red Sea. It opened the route by which merchant convoys could 
reach the Egyptian battle front, bringing the men and the weapons 


which later gave us our victory in the desert. The second was the 
denial of Malta to the enemy. While it still stood in British hands it 
remained an ever-present threat to the troop and supply convoys on 
which Rommel depended for his victory. To the fact that it stood 
firm throughout those anxious months, and that from its airfields 
and harbours issued the aircraft, the surface ships, and the 
submarines which continually attacked his convoys, Rommel owed 
his eventual defeat. Against the cost in lives and in ships must be 
set the inestimable part which Malta played in the final Mediter- 
ranean victory. 

The Malta convoys, fought through against such bitter and over- 
whelming opposition, can perhaps be said to have been even more a 
victory of the Merchant Navy than of the Royal Navy. Vice- 
Admiral Syfret, commanding the August convoy, summed them 
all up when he wrote in his report: "Tribute has been paid to the 
personnel of His Majesty's ships; but both officers and men will 
desire to give first place to the conduct, courage, and determination 
of the masters, officers, and men of the merchant ships. The stead- 
fast manner in which these ships pressed on their way to Malta 
through all attacks, answering every manoeuvring order like a well- 
trained fleet unit, was a most inspiring sight. Many of these fine 
men and their ships were lost. But the memory of their conduct will 
remain an inspiration to all who were privileged to sail with them.'* 12 

As with Malta, so also with Russia, though in her case the need 
was probably not quite so urgent. But she was still in the battle, 
still engaging the greater part of the German Army and nearly half 
the German Air Force, and such supplies as she could obtain from 
the West undoubtedly helped to keep her going. 

The carrying of supplies round the North Cape, which had begun 
in the autumn of 1941 as a trickle, had by mid-1942 grown into a 
flood, and was inevitably attracting more and more enemy attention. 
During January the battleship Tirpit[ moved up to Trondheim, 
being joined there a month later by the pocket-battleship Scheer. 
The Prin{ Eugen, home from Brest, also reached Trondheim with 
the Sckeer, but she limped in badly damaged by a torpedo from, the 

S) . . . . g 

Trident, one of four British submarines sent to patrol off that 
Norwegian port. 

The arrival of the Tirpit^ and the Sckeer in these Norwegian 
waters could mean only one thing, and Admiral Tovey, Comman- 
der-in-Chief of the Home Fleet, expected a surface attack by them 
at any moment on the convoys to North Russia as they made their 
precarious passages across the roof of the world. 13 As the days began 
to lengthen the merchant ships were deprived of their cloak of 
winter darkness, while it would be still another two or three months 
before the ice barrier began to melt and thus allow the convoys to be 
routed farther north, away from the enemy-held coast. 

The Chiefs of Staff were as folly aware as Admiral Tovey of the 
danger presented by the presence of the Tirpit^ in these Norwegian 
waters. 14 They realised also the restricting effect she had on the 
Home Fleet, whose main strength had now to be engaged in 
guarding against her possible forays aimed at the Russian convoys 
at a time when battleships were urgently needed elsewhere. The 
only way to reach her, as she lay at anchor in the fastnesses of the 
Trondheim Fjord, was by air, and the Chiefs of Staff gave instruc- 
tions for such attacks to be carried out. But the narrow waters 
of the fjord made attack by the torpedo bombers of the Fleet 
Air Arm impossible, and Trondheim lay at the extreme range of 
the Royal Air Force's heaviest bombers. Sixteen of them had a 
shot at her on the night of 29th January, but their bombs failed 
to hit. 

On the evening of 6th March a signal was received from the 
Seawolf, one of the submarines patrolling off Trondheim, reporting 
that she had sighted a large enemy warship. It was the Tirpit^, 
screened by three destroyers, and she was in search of Convoy 
PQ 12, which had sailed from Iceland on the ist. As always with the 
passage of these Russian convoys, the Home Fleet was at sea to 
provide distant cover. On this occasion it comprised the battleships 
King George V and Duke of York, the battle-cruiser Renown, the 
aircraft carrier Victorious, the cruiser Berwick, and twelve destroy- 
ers. By midnight of the 6th Admiral Tovey was in possession of the 
Seawolf s sighting report, and the prospect was opening before him 

of treating the Tirpit[ as he had treated her sister ship, the Bismarck^ 
ten months earlier. 

But it was not to be. The day of 7th March dawned to disclose a 
tempestuous sea, a full gale, snow squalls, and "sea smoke," a 
condition in Arctic waters which gives the impression of thick 
white fog at sea level. This, combined with severe icing conditions, 
made it impossible to launch aircraft from the Victorious. Had it 
been possible to fly a search, the Tirpit^ would almost certainly have 
been located 15 and brought to action. As it was, she, the Home 
Fleet, and two Russian convoys (one outward, the other homeward 
bound) passed through the same waters without sighting each 
other. So thick was the "sea smoke," indeed, that the two convoys 
actually passed through each other without realising the fact. 
Admiral Ciliax, in the Tirpit^ had no knowledge of the presence of 
the Home Fleet in these waters, or even that it was at sea. 18 He also 
had tried to fly off search aircraft from the Tirpiti and had been 
similarly prevented by the weather. It was not until two days later 
that he realised the narrowness of his escape. 

The occasion of this realisation was an attack on the Tirpit^ by 
Albacores from the Victorious on the morning of the 9th. By 
then Qliax had abandoned his fruitless search and was returning 
to Narvik. A search flown from the Victorious found the enemy 
ship as she was steaming south, and twelve torpedo-carrying 
Albacores were directed on to her. "It is a wonderful chance," 
signalled Admiral Tovey to them as they flew off, "God be with 
you." But in spite of an attack, carried out according to the 
Germans themselves with "determination and dash", 17 all the tor- 
pedoes missed. By British naval standards, however, it was a bad 
attack, made by aircrews who had not had adequate opportunities of 
training and who foiled to seize the tactical advantages which 
might have been theirs had they been more experienced. 

The escape of the Tirplt^ brought home to Admiral Raeder the 
extreme danger in which she stood during operations of this kind 
without the protection of air cover. Fortune had smiled on Admiral 
Qliax on the yth, 8th, and jth March, but she might not smile 
so benignly on a future occasion. Admiral Raeder decided to move 


up less important ships to the Norwegian bases and to use the 
Tirpiti only under the most favourable conditions. The Hipper 
reached Trondheim on the 2ist March, and two months later a 
second pocket-battleship, the Lut%pw, joined the squadron in 
northern waters. For the rest, a strong force of U-boats and of air- 
craft, assisted by destroyers, were expected to bring the sinkings of 
ships up to a number that would make the convoys impossibly 

The next four convoys to Russia, PQ 13 to 1 6, passed through 
with varying success. PQ 13 was unfortunate in meeting a gale so 
severe that the merchant ships were scattered far and wide. In this 
defenceless state enemy destroyers, U-boats, and aircraft reaped a 
rich reward, sinking five out of the twenty ships which sailed from 
Iceland. The escorting destroyer Eclipse was badly damaged by 
enemy destroyers, while the cruiser Trinidad had the cruel mis- 
fortune of hitting herself with one of her own torpedoes when its 
steering mechanism failed to function in the extreme cold. On the 
other side of the balance was the loss to the enemy of one of his 
destroyers, the Z.2,6. 

PQ 15, sailing at the same time as the return convoy QP 1 1, also 
ran into trouble* An air attack sank three ships, while one ship of 
the returning convoy was sunk by a German destroyer. But more 
critical, in the existing state of escort forces, was the loss and damage 
to naval ships. The cruiser Edinburgh, escorting QP n, had her 
stern blown off by two torpedoes from a U-boat and had to turn 
back towards Murmansk, escorted by two destroyers, the Foresight 
and Forester. They were found by three German destroyers, and 
all were hit. The Edinburgh was now so badly damaged that she had 
to be sunk by our own destroyers after her crew had been taken off; 
the Foresight and Forester managed to reach the haven of their 
Russian base after a slow and painful passage. But once again there 
was some consolation for this mishap in the sinking of the German 
destroyer Hermann Schoemann. 

This, however, was not the end of the naval losses. The destroyer 
Punjabi was accidentally rammed and sunk in very thick weather by 
the fleet flagship, the King George V> and the damaged Trinidad, 


patched up and on her way home for permanent repairs, fell a 
victim to a dive-bomber which started a fire and did so much 
damage that the ship had to be abandoned and sunk three hours 

In the face of losses such as these, all of them incurred through 
this commitment of supplying Russia, the continuation of the 
convoys to North Russia came under serious consideration. The 
strategic situation, as was pointed out by Admiral Tovey, was 
wholly favourable to the enemy. His ships would be working close 
to their own coast, supported by shore-based air reconnaissance and 
striking forces, and protected by a screen of U-boats between 
Spitsbergen and Norway. The British ships were without shore- 
based air support, were operating 1,000 miles from their base, and 
with their destroyers, in the event of mishap, carrying insufficient 
fuel to escort a damaged ship to harbour. These difficulties were 
fully appreciated in the Admiralties in both London and Washing- 
ton. "TTie whole thing is a most unsound operation with the dice 
loaded against us in every direction", 18 wrote the First Sea Lord 
to his opposite number in the United States, Admiral King, and the 
American agreed. Yet all suggestions to defer the convoys until 
once more the winter daikness of the far north should provide a 
cloak against heavy attack were doomed to failure in face of the 
political need of keeping Russia supplied. Since navies are, in every 
respect, the instruments through which policies are translated into 
action, the pleas of the First Sea Lord were turned down. A new, 
and still larger, convoy was assembled, and sailed from Iceland on 
27th June for its normal twelve-day passage across the enemy's 
northern doorstep. 

Admiral Pound was full of forebodings as the convoy sailed. 
The latest reconnaissance reports placed the Scheer and Lutqow at 
Narvik, the Tirpit^ and Hipper at Trondheim. In addition, of 
course, were the very strong forces of U-boats and aircraft which 
the enemy kept based in northern Norway for the express purpose 
of attacking these convoys. Admiral Raeder, although his influence 
with Hitler had been on the wane for some time, was still at the 
helm of the German Navy, and the First Sea Lord knew well 


enough that he would want to justify the existence of his big ships 
by a successful action. Admiral Pound conveyed some of these 
forebodings to Admiral Tovey in a telephone conversation before 
the Home Fleet sailed and remarked that, if serious trouble threat- 
ened, they could always order the convoy to scatter. 

To Admiral Tovey the suggestion that the convoy might be told 
to scatter appeared contrary to the lessons which were being 
learned in all convoy operations. The whole experience of the 
anti-submarine battle to date proved that it was the independent 
ship and the straggler which suffered, and that ships in convoy, 
even with a weak escort, stood a far better chance of coming through 
in safety against attack both by aircraft and U-boats. And so far as 
surface-ship action went, there were precedents from which solid 
comfort could be drawn. Commodore Harwood's action off the 
River Plate in December 1939 had shown that cruisers, handled 
imaginatively, need not unduly fear the larger guns of a more 
powerful adversary. Captain Fegen's supreme gallantry in the 
Jervis Bay in November 1940 had saved a convoy from annihilation 
in the face of tremendous surface odds. And only four months 
previously Admiral Vian had shown, in the Battle of Sirte, that with 
four small cruisers and eleven destroyers he could save a convoy in 
the face of one battleship, two large and one small cruisers, and 
six destroyers. 

In the Arctic the odds were, perhaps, rather more formidable 
than those which had faced Admiral Vian, though it is open to 
doubt whether the enemy would have used the Tirpit^ as anything 
more than a rallying-point for the other ships of the force, leaving 
the actual convoy battle to the pocket-battleships and the Hipper. 
But be that as it may, PQ 17 was by no means defenceless, even 
against so heavy an attack as that feared. Admiral Hamilton, 
commanding the close support force, had four 8-inch cruisers and 
three destroyers, and could call on six more destroyers in the escort 
force. Certainly it was a force greatly inferior to the expected enemy, 
yet, had it gone into action, it would in all probability have been 
able to inflict serious damage before being sunk. 

There was, too, the Home Fleet. Its task was to provide distant 


cover for the convoy in the event of an enemy threat by surface 
ships. Admiral Tovey had proposed, should there be strong 
evidence of the Tirpit% and Scheer leaving their bases, that the 
convoy should be turned back towards his advancing ships in the 
hope of reaching their protection in time. The First Sea Lord, 
however, had decided that the convoy must go on. 

Convoy PQ 17, consisting of thirty-five merchant ships, made 
good progress for the first seven days, passing north of Bear Island 
(between Spitsbergen and North Cape) on the early morning of 
3rd July. So far all had gone well, but it was now about to enter the 
crucial waters in which attack could be expected. In the conditions 
of Arctic summer, with the sun above the horizon by day and night, 
it could not hope to get past without being sighted and reported by 
the German air reconnaissance. 

By 3rd July the German surface ships were all on the move. The 
Scheer and Lut{ow had left Narvik for a temporary base farther 
north in Altenfjord. The Scheer alone arrived there, the Lfitfow 
running aground when leaving Narvik and becoming too badly 
damaged to play any further part. The Tirpit^ and Hipper had also 
sailed from Trondheim, bound for Narvik. These departures, which 
brought the German ships considerably nearer to the convoy route, 
were all quickly discovered by reconnaissance aircraft of Coastal 
Command and duly reported to the Admiralty. 

On the following day the first attacks on the convoy began, all 
by aircraft. They were beaten off, with the loss of three merchant 
ships to aircraft torpedoes. 

On the same day Admiral Raeder ordered the Tirpiti to join 
the Scheer in Altenfjord, a fact quickly noted by the Operational 
Intelligence Centre in the Admiralty. This gathering of surface 
ships could have but one object, the destruction of the convoy by 
overwhelming surface strength. A moment's calculation revealed 
that the enemy ships could reach the convoy during the night of 
the 4th. So far as the Admiralty could visualise the situation in the 
light of the latest available intelligence, when it was discussed by 
the First Sea Lord at a specially called meeting in the evening of the 
4th, the enemy squadron was already on its way. 


Thus had arisen, in the Admiralty picture, the very state of affairs 
in which Admiral Pound had warned Admiral Tovey that he might 
scatter the convoy. The Home Fleet, in its role of distant cover, was 
too far to the west to intervene; the close support of four cruisers 
and nine destroyers was held to be no match for the powerful guns 
of the Tirpiti and the pocket-battleships. It was in this situation that 
the First Sea Lord, with the assent of his colleagues, came to the 
decision to order the cruisers to withdraw to the westward at high 
speed and the convoy to scatter. 19 

In fact, neither the Tirpit^ nor the Scheer had yet left Altenf jorcL 
The post-war studies of the German naval archives reveal that Hitler 
had laid down stringent orders that the German capital ships were 
not to sail until and unless the British carriers had been sighted and 
attacked. 20 As the First Sea Lord's meeting in the Admiralty broke up, 
with its decision to scatter the convoy already taken and the signals 
being ciphered, a further gleam of information reached the Opera- 
tional Intelligence Centre. It was, unhappily, not decisive, but gave 
an indication that the Tirpit^ and Scheer were still at anchor in 
Altenfjord. It was at once taken to Admiral Pound by Rear- 
Admiral Clayton, in charge of the Operational Intelligence Centre. 
The First Sea Lord decided, probably because of the lack of 
positive information, that the Admiralty signals should stand. 

In the light of what followed we know now that the decision to 
scatter the convoy was an error of judgment on the part of the 
Admiralty. It may be that the shortage of cruisers both the 
Edinburgh and the Trinidad had already been lost in these waters 
may have influenced Admiral Pound not to risk the four with 
Admiral Hamilton in what he no doubt expected to be a hopeless 
action. But to this error of judgment in the Admiralty was added 
another in the vicinity of the convoy itself, when the destroyers 
of the close escort withdrew with Admiral Hamilton. It is 
difficult to understand^ why he did not order them back. He 
thought, not unnaturally from the urgency of the Admiralty's 
signals, that the enemy ships were close at hand and his idea was to 
lead them away from the convoy and towards the Home Fleet, 
where six additional destroyers might prove of inestimable use in a 


fleet action. The enemy's objective was almost certainly the merchant 
ships and it seems unlikely that he would be deflected from it 
by an unprofitable chase to the westward in which the British ships 
had a useful margin of superiority in speed. Unfortunately, Admiral 
Hamilton retained the destroyers with him even when it became 
apparent that no enemy ships were present. As a result the merchant 
ships, no longer a convoy for they had obeyed the order to scatter, 
had no defence apart from four corvettes and two anti-aircraft ships 
which were all that now remained of the original escort. These, in 
fact, did collect small groups of ships and shepherd them through. 
Had the six destroyers been available they too could have shared 
this valuable work. 

The Tirpiti, Scheer, and Hipper finally left harbour about noon 
on jth July, being promptly sighted and reported by British and 
Russian submarines on patrol. There was now, however, no task 
left for them to carry outi As information of the havoc being caused 
to the erstwhile convoy by above- and under-water attack came 
through to them by signal, they reversed their course and returned 
to Narvik. 

Of the original convoy of thirty-five merchant ships, no more 
than eleven reached their destination. The remainder met their 
death in the icy waters of the Barents Sea, victims of the U-boats 
and the bombers. The loss in valuable war cargo destined as aid to 
the hard-pressed Russian armies was serious, the loss of the ships 
and their" gallant crews was tragic. 

But there was more to the disaster than that. One American 
battleship, two cruisers, and several destroyers were included in the 
distant cover and in the close support force for the first time in 
these Arctic convoy operations. There were American and Russian 
merchant ships in the convoy. Unfortunately these events caused 
doubts, most difficult to disprove, to arise as to the determination of 
the Navy when threatened by superior forces. Such doubts of course 
were unfounded and everything done by the Royal Navy during 
the passage of PQ 17 was unquestionably done in all good faith. 

It is, perhaps, to be wise after the event to remark that the direct 
control of operations at sea by the Admiralty, always permissible 


in emergency, was not really applicable in these particular circum- 
stances. All that was required was a signal from the Admiralty to the 
Commander-in-Chief and to the Flag Officer Detached Squadron 
(Admiral Hamilton) of the possibility (or probability) of meeting 
strong enemy forces. Had that been done the convoy would have 
been escorted all through the danger zone and the risk of meeting 
superior forces willingly faced. 

The episode of PQ 17 was a sad one of error upon error, and its 
consequences were tragic. Out of the whole sorry story there was 
but the courage and endurance of the men of the ships which went 
on alone to kindle a redeeming flame of maritime endeavour and 

The disaster of PQ 17, however, could not be allowed to deflect 
the major strategical requirement of aid to Russia. As the year of 
1942 grew slowly older the ultimate pattern of victory was beginning 
to emerge out of the kaleidoscopic activities of a war fought over a 
world- wide battlefield. Three eventful years had passed since Hitler 
had first pressed the trigger, and through the ups and downs of 
fortune, through the actions won and lost, the Allied grip was now 
visibly beginning to tighten. North, south, east, and west the Axis 
threat had been contained, and the ring of force that held it in check 
was not only growing stronger both in men and the weapons of 
war, but was also slowly beginning to contract. The inexorable 
power of sea command, with its flexibility of attack, its defensive 
depth, its ability to carry men and weapons to any and every 
theatre of conflict, its power of denying to the enemy the raw 
materials of war, was beginning to exercise its inevitable pressure. 
To those who could discern, even though faintly, the shape of 
things to come, the frenzied propaganda of the Axis powers seemed 
to assume a shriller tone. 

In this broad pattern of Allied strategy, now beginning to turn 
slowly from the long defence towards a more forward policy, the 
resistance of Russia was playing a vital, even a decisive, part. The 
whole of the free world had applauded her gallant stand against the 
first terrific onslaughts of the summer of 1941, had watched en- 
thralled her great recovery of the following winter, and now suffered 


with her in her agony as the second German offensive bit deeply 
into the Caucasus. There could be no question of allowing the 
tragedy of PQ 17 to bring to a halt the flow of war material to so 
gallant an ally. The convoys continued. 

Painful lessons often bring in their train a remedial action, and 
the operation of passing convoy PQ 18 to Russia was no exception. 
The convoy sailed in September with a close support force consis- 
ting of the anti-aircraft cruiser Scylla and no fewer than sixteen 
destroyers, in addition to its normal close escort. In order to pro- 
vide these additional destroyers, Admiral Tovey had obtained the 
First Sea Lord's approval to dispense with its battleship cover 
for this convoy. This support force remained with the convoy 
throughout the whole of the danger period, and then brought 
home the empty ships of the returning convoy. But now, for 
the first time, an escort carrier, H.M.S. Avenger, sailed with the 
convoy. She carried twelve Sea Hurricane fighters and three anti- 
submarine Swordfish. In addition, two squadrons of torpedo- 
carrying Hampdens of the Royal Air Force were based in north 
Russia for operations against German surface ships, should they 
come out. 

The first air attacks on the convoy were made on i3th September 
and, due partly to a tactical error in handling the Sea Hurricanes 
from the Avenger and partly to the refusal of the captains of the 
United States merchant ships which formed the starboard wing 
column of the convoy to obey the order to turn towards their 
attackers, eight merchant ships were sunk, all of them American. 
Already U-boats had accounted for two more, so that ten in all out of 
the thirty-nine ships in the convoy had gone to the bottom. It was 
hardly an encouraging start. There was, however, a different story on 
the following day, for by then a more satisfactory technique of hand- 
ling the fighters from the carrier had been evolved. As the heavy 
enemy air attacks came in, they were largely broken up by the Sea 
Hurricanes before they could reach torpedo range, and die ships' 
anti-aircraft guns did the rest. The day ended with a very heavy 
loss to the enemy and with only one more ship in the convoy sunk. 

Finally, after further air and U-boat attacks on the next two days, 


Convoy PQ 18 reached north Russia with only two more losses. 
Twelve merchant ships and an oiler had been sunk, but it had cost 
the enemy thirty-three torpedo planes, six bombers, and two 
reconnaissance aircraft. 21 Three U-boats out of the twelve sent to 
operate against the convoy had also been sent to the bottom, one of 
them largely due to good work by the Avengers Swordfish. 

The use of an escort carrier on this north Russian convoy route 
provided the main answer to the problem of defence against U-- 
boats and aircraft. It was an application of one of the chief lessons 
learned on the great convoy routes of the Atlantic; that air cover 
was an essential part of convoy protection. What the Audacity had 
achieved in closing the "air gap" on the Gibraltar route, the 
Avenger repeated above the Arctic circle. 

Although it was not apparent at the time, the passage of PQ 18 
marked the high-water level of German air attack against the 
northern convoys. Events which were shortly to take place some 
thousands of miles to the south on the coasts of North Africa forced 
the withdrawal of much of the German air strength deployed in 
Russia, and their departure made easier the future supply to Russia 
of the tanks, guns, and aircraft which were to deal the enemy such 
savage blows as the Russian counter-attacks in the East gathered 
force. It was but one more example of the profound influence which 
the ubiquity of sea power could exercise on campaigns fought 
thousands of miles apart. 

It was also these events in North Africa, with their overriding 
demand for ships of war of every class, that delayed the next Russian 
convoy for three months. In the face of insistent Russian demands 
for help, a few ships were sailed independently during the next three 
months. This, however, was hardly an operation of war that could 
commend itself to the Naval Staff, for it ran counter to all that had 
been learned so painfully throughout the three years of modern war. 
Five of the thirteen ships that sailed in this fashion reached their 
destination, a proportion that was held to be satisfactorily high. As 
a political gesture it may have been justified; as a naval operation it 
was condemned by one and alL 

When the Home Fleet at last received its ships back from the 


North African operations, Admiral Tovey decided to sail the next 
convoy in two groups. The first, of fifteen merchant ships, reached 
Russia without mishap or enemy attack. A covering force of two 
cruisers, the Sheffield and Jamaica, and two destroyers, under the 
command of Rear-Admiral Burnett, accompanied it all the way to 
the Kola Inlet, and then turned back to meet the second half of the 
convoy which had sailed from Iceland a week after the first. Their 
task was to cover this second convoy as it traversed the dangerous 
Barents Sea. 

This second half, consisting of fourteen .ships escorted by six 
destroyers and five smaller vessels, met with no trouble until it was 
well beyond Bear Island, but it had been delayed by a gale which 
resulted in Admiral Burnett's two cruisers being some thirty miles 
to the northward instead of to the westward of the convoy as he had 
intended. Neither he nor Captain Sherbrooke, commanding the 
close escort, knew each other's position. 

In the early morning of list December one of the escorting 
destroyers, H.M.S. Obdurate, sighted two strange destroyers to the 
northwards of the convoy in the semi-darkness of the Arctic winter. 
She closed to investigate, thinking that they might be Russian, only 
to be greeted when she came within range by a salvo of shells. 
Captain Sherbrooke in the Onslow at once turned towards the flash 
of the guns, signalling to the Orwell, Obedient, and Obdurate to 
join him. 

A few minutes later Captain Sherbrooke sighted a far more 
formidable adversary in the shape of the German io,ooo-ton cruiser 
Hipper. Together with the Orwell, the Onslow steered towards the 
new enemy, engaging her fitfully through gaps in the smoke-screen 
with which the convoy was now shrouded. Her return fire was 
inaccurate and desultory, and she was hit three times before she 
suddenly "pulled herself together" 22 and hit the Onslow savagely 
with a few well-directed salvoes, wrecking her bridge, putting half 
her guns and torpedo tubes out of action, and severely wounding 
Captain Sherbrooke. Although in great pain, and with one eye shot 
through, Sherbrooke refused to leave his shattered bridge until he 
was satisfied that the Hipper had been driven off and that the next 


senior officer of the escort, Lieutenant-Commander Kinloch of the 
Obedient -, had a clear understanding of the situation. In recognition 
of his gallantry and determination in driving off a far stronger 
enemy and safeguarding the merchant ships of the convoy, Captain 
Sherbrooke was later awarded the Victoria Cross. 

An hour later the Hipper returned to the attack. The Obedient, 
Orwell, and Obdurate, after laying smoke to screen the convoy, 
steamed out once more to do battle. They drove the Hipper off 
again, but not before she had concentrated her fire on the destroyer 
Achates, which was laying more smoke astern of the convoy. The 
little Achates was quickly crippled, with heavy casualties on board, 
but she continued with her task of laying smoke for another two 
hours, getting lower and lower in the water until finally she was 
unmanageable. Only then did she signal for assistance. It was too 
late, and she sank before she could be taken in tow after having 
carried out most valuable work in shrouding the convoy from 
observation. It was a superb example of devotion to her duty. 

In the meantime, however, the two cruisers of the support force, 
the Sheffield and the Jamaica, still some thirty miles farther north, 
had received Captain Sherbrooke's enemy report. At the time 
Admiral Burnett was investigating a radar contact, which delayed 
him in answering the call of the destroyers. Nine minutes later, with 
the contact satisfactorily accounted for as a straggler from the 
convoy, Admiral Burnett was hastening southwards at thirty knots 
and before long, over the horizon ahead, the cruisers sighted the 
flash of gunfire. A second radar contact led them to the Hipper. 
She was just hauling off from the threat of torpedo attack from the 
Obedient and her fellow destroyers, and suddenly found herself 
under accurate fire from the Sheffield and Jamaica. Before she could 
realise what was happening she was heavily hit, and then hit twice 
more before she could get clear. This was enough for the German 
Admiral, who immediately ordered all his forces to break off action 
and retire to the west. But before that order could be carried out the 
two British cruisers sighted two German destroyers, part of the 
Hipper s force. The Sheffield an.6. Jamaica turned towards them and 
sank one, the Friedrich Eckholdt, in a hurricane of fire. 

While all this fighting was taking place to the north, the convoy 
had in fact narrowly escaped disaster, all unsuspected either by the 
destroyer escort or by the cruisers. The German plan had been for the 
Hipper and her three destroyers to draw off the escort to the north, 
thereby laying the convoy open to attack by the pocket-battleship 
Lutqw and three other destroyers from the south. Tactically, the 
plan worked to perfection. While Commander Kinloch, who had 
just taken over from Captain Sherbrooke, was collecting his des- 
troyers some miles to the north, the Lut^ow had made a sudden 
appearance within two miles of the merchant ships, approaching 
from the unguarded south. The danger was extreme, with the whole 
convoy open to attack at point-blank range. But the Lilt^ow hesi- 
tated, and a minute or two later a providential snow squall blotted 
out the sight of the ships from her menacing guns: nor did she send 
her destroyers in to attack. By the time it cleared, the gallant 
Obedient and her sisters were there to guard against this new threat, 
and soon afterwards the Lutfpw received the German Admiral's 
signal to withdraw. She fired a few ineffective rounds at long range 
at the convoy on her way to join him, and the fighting ended with 
a brief exchange of fire between the German ships and Admiral 
Burnett's cruisers before full darkness closed down. The convoy, 
saved by the stubborn defence of its destroyers carried out with 
inspired and traditional gallantry, proceeded on its way to reach 
its destination without further trouble. 

It was a remarkable result. "That an enemy force of at least one 
pocket-battleship, one heavy cruiser, and six destroyers, with all the 
advantages of surprise and concentration, should be held off for 
four hours by five destroyers, and driven from the area by two 
6-inch cruisers, is most creditable and satisfactory", wrote Admiral 
Tovey in his report. 28 But it was more than that. It showed up the 
German Navy at its most timid and least enterprising, and seemed 
to point to a crack in morale that boded no good for the enemy's 
future at sea. 

In Germany itself it had shattering results. The unfortunate 
Raeder was summoned to the "WolPs Lair" where Hitler had his 
headquarters and was forced to listen to a ninety-minute tirade from 


his Fuehrer. He condemned the German Navy for its refusal to 
fight to a finish conveniently forgetting for the moment that he 
himself had given orders that capital ships were not to run risks 
and sketched German naval history from its earliest beginnings in 
scathing terms. Capital ships, he raged, were nothing but a waste 
of men and material and served no purpose except to tie up aircraft 
and smaller vessels for their defence during their inactivity. Goering 
added fuel to the Fuehrer's flaming anger by complaining bitterly 
of the "waste" of Luftwaffe squadrons in guarding big ships while 
they swung idly round their anchors. Finally Hitler ordered Raeder 
to prepare a memorandum on paying off all the capital ships and 
heavy cruisers. 84 

In this order from the Fuehrer Raeder foresaw the sentence of 
death on the Navy he had striven so hard to create. In a last despair- 
ing effort he presented to Hitler, on 1 5th January, a child's guide on 
the correct use of sea power, but even this, fortified with all the 
arguments he could produce, was of no avail. His influence with 
Hitler, which had been on the wane since the Bismarck had been 
sunk over eighteen months earlier, had by now reached vanishing- 
point, and at the end of the month he resigned and hauled down his 
flag as Commander-in-Chief. 

Thus Hitler deprived himself of the services of the one man in 
Germany who might conceivably have won him the war. Raeder 
was a brilliant strategist who from the start had seen clearly the need 
for a balanced Navy. He had emphasised, in 1941, the great strategic 
possibilities in the Mediterranean theatre, following the Nazi suc- 
cesses in Greece, Crete, and North Africa, and had his advice been 
taken then it could well have produced a situation to which the 
Allies had no answer. Quite how near Germany came to winning 
at that moment it is difficult to say, but it is at least arguable that 
Raeder's suggestions, if carried through, might have brought her 
to the threshold of victory. But the chance had been missed, largely 
because Hitler saw in himself alone the architect of a literal Deutsch- 
land liter Alles. No lesser mortal could be permitted to usurp that 

In Raeder's place Hitler promoted Doenitz to the rank of Grand 


Admiral and appointed him Commander-in-Chief. Doenitz had 
been a submarine commander in the First World War and was still 
devoted to his beloved U-boats. To the growing difficulties which 
were now facing the German Navy in every theatre of war he had at 
first but one solution more and yet more U-boats though later 
he came to realise the need and the value of capital ships in the 
conduct of sea affairs. But at this period, himself out of temper 
with the big ships, he had little difficulty in convincing Hitler of the 
soundness of his views. The building programme was ordered to 
be stepped up in stages from eighteen to forty-five completed 
U-boats per month, and in addition there was to be a monthly 
output of three of the new Type XXI prefabricated U-boats with 
a much higher submerged speed. In the view of the Grand Admiral, 
this accelerated U-boat programme would prove the complete 
answer to all Germany's naval woes. 


Chapter 10 


FOR three years now Britain and her Allies had been necessarily 
committed to the defensive, a long period of stubborn fighting 
designed to hold each of the enemies within the limits of their 
main campaign areas. The chief weapon of this defence was sea 
power, exercised in the widest application of its meaning, with the 
Royal Navy and Royal Air Force acting in conjunction to deny the 
enemy the use of the sea as a means of transport while retaining it 
for our own use, and with the Army holding the essential bases 
from which such sea power could be exercised. In some cases, as at 
Hong Kong and Singapore, there had been failure; in others, such 
as Alexandria, Malta, and Gibraltar, the defence had stood firm. 

Around the European enemy, to the north, west, and south, the 
barrier of sea power was still securely held. Three times in those 
first three years had it been tested to the uttermost: in 1940 when 
Hitler stood on the Channel coast gazing across the narrow strip 
of water which still makes Britain an island; in 1941 when an 
attenuated Mediterranean Fleet held the seas of the Levant after the 
German capture of Crete; in 1942 when a savagely battered Malta 
defiantly barred the path to an Axis conquest of North Africa. In 
each case it was the resilience of sea power which had enabled 
Britain to hold the enemy back. 

In 1941, barred from expanding westward or southward by this 
ring of British sea power, Hitler had struck eastwards into the great 
Russian plains. And even in that great land campaign, fought out 


hundreds of miles from the oceans, the long fingers of sea power 
stretched out to fasten their grip around him. Across the oceans to 
the north, along the sea lanes to the south, flowed a steady stream 
of weapons and supplies to the Russian armies, to help to slow down, 
to stop, and finally to drive back the eastward rush of armed Ger- 
man might. 

In the Far East the same tremendous drama was being enacted. 
In the Indian Ocean, far back from the fighting front, a tenuous 
line of British sea power was in being. To the south of the Japanese 
campaign area the seas around Australia were being held, to the 
east the rapid resurgence of American sea power was forging a 
weapon with which to break into and demolish the Japanese sea 

The first tests of this new American naval might came in May 
and June of 1942. The ease and speed with which the Japanese had 
made their vast conquests bred a desire to establish and consolidate 
a defensive perimeter behind which to digest their gargantuan meal. 
A snap American bomber raid on Tokyo, on i8th April, 1942, 
launched from the carriers Hornet and Enterprise^ proved that there 
was a gap in the defensive ring and reinforced this desire. Over- 
estimating their own industrial capacity for sustaining war, and 
under-estimating the huge Allied potential, the Japanese decided 
to thrust their perimeter outwards and to consolidate on a line 
including the Aleutian Islands, Midway, Samoa, Fiji, New Cale- 
donia, and Port Moresby in New Guinea. 1 

This was a blunder of the first magnitude, and one from which 
all their future woes were to stem. Already their strategic area, so 
easily gained, was too large to be defended successfully against the 
inevitable growth of Allied strength; to add to its area by nearly 
one-third, and that third, moreover, based on far-flung outposts 
separated by thousands of miles of ocean, was to court irretrievable 
disaster. Japan consumed the major part of her naval and air power 
in the attempt, and in the losses she suffered she opened wide the 
door to her eventual staggering defeat. 

Her first thrust in this new expansion programme was to the 
southward, where her goal was Port Moresby. Here, as the assault 


and support forces were moving down through the Coral Sea, the 
Japanese Navy, for the first time since the outbreak of the Eastern 
war, met really determined opposition. It had been a stroke of 
fortune that, during the attack on Pearl Harbour, the three carriers 
of the U.S. Pacific Fleet had been at sea exercising. Thus they had 
escaped destruction and were ready now to fight their first battle. 
At a range which rarely narrowed to less than 160 miles the carrier- 
borne air forces of the United States and Japan fought out their 
action in the early days of May. Each side lost a carrier, but the 
Japanese invasion force was turned back and their attempt to occupy 
Port Moresby ended in failure. A second attempt was planned for 
July, 2 but by then, however, it was to be too late. 

The failure in the Coral Sea was followed a month later by the 
attempt to add Midway Island to the Japanese sphere. This was 
planned on a far more ambitious scale, calling for the use of the 
main fleet of Japan, yet its result was disastrous. Although the 
United States was still suffering from the losses at Pearl Harbour, 
Admiral Nimitz, the U.S. Commander-in-Chief, succeeded in 
scraping together three carriers and a handful of cruisers and 
destroyers. Aided by good Intelligence and the failure of the 
Japanese to scout ahead of their fleet, the carrier-borne aircraft of 
the Hornet, Enterprise, and Yorktown swept down on the main 
Japanese carrier force and overwhelmed it with bombs and torpe- 
does. Four Japanese carriers went down, and this crippling loss 
changed, in one action, the whole face of the Pacific campaign. In 
this one blow Japan lost the strategic initiative and was never able 
again to regain it. 

In the midst of those resounding and far-reaching battles in the 
Pacific, fought so gallantly and successfully by the United States 
Navy against heavily superior forces, the British, too, delivered 
their blow against possible Japanese expansion, in the Indian Ocean. 
Their rapid advance down the islands to Java, the possibility that 
Port Moresby would fall to them, and their foothold in the Indian 
Ocean from their occupation of the Andaman Islands and capture 
of Rangoon, all emphasised the strategic importance of Madagascar, 
lying off the south-east coast of Africa. It was held in some strength 

by the forces of Vichy France, on the whole hostile to Great Britain, 
but of far greater strategic import was the fact that it could well 
form the meeting-place of Japanese and German U-boats. The 
island contained a magnificent harbour at Diego Suarez and two 
smaller ones at Tamatave and Majunga. As an enemy U-boat base 
it would provide a grave threat to the convoys which, coming round 
the Cape of Good Hope, supplied both the Middle East and Far 
East fronts in Egypt and India. Vichy had once before yielded to 
Japanese demands without a struggle in Indo-China; it could so 
easily happen again. 

Detailed planning for Operation "Ironclad", as the capture of 
Diego Suarez was called, began in March 1942, when an American 
agreement to reinforce the Home Fleet temporarily with U.S. ships 
made it possible to allocate our own ships for the enterprise. The 
nucleus of the naval force engaged was Force H, guarding the 
western Mediterranean from Gibraltar, and its place was taken 
temporarily by a squadron from the Home Fleet. Force F, as the 
Madagascar squadron was called, was reinforced for the operation 
with the carrier Indomitable from the Eastern Fleet, and she joined 
the rest of the force on 3rd May as it was steaming up from Durban. 
The assault on Diego Suarez was fixed for 4.30 a.m. on the 
5 th. 

The plan was a simple one. The great harbour of Diego Suarez, 
lying in the north-eastern corner of the island, was strongly 
defended with gun batteries. In the north-western corner of the 
island lies the great William Pitt Bay, cutting deeply into the land 
and separated from Diego Suarez Bay by a neck of land about four 
miles wide. Although the entrance to William Pitt Bay was studded 
with rocks and reefs, mating the approach a very difficult one, it 
was decided to make the assault landings there and thus to take the 
Diego Suarez defences in the rear. 

As the assault forces, under the command of Major-General 
Sturges, R.M., approached the island, the destroyers Laforey, 
Lightning^ and Anthony were sent on ahead to mark out the approach 
channel with buoys. This was done without interference from the 
French defenders. They had considered that the channel was 

impossible of navigation during dark hours and that in consequence 
the defending guns need not be manned. 

Through the unlit and tortuous channels the assault ships moved 
up into the inner bay. They were preceded by two minesweepers, 
the Romney and Cromarty^ themselves led by the corvette Freesla. 
About seventeen moored mines were cut, and at three o'clock in the 
morning one detonated in the Romney's sweep. The explosion 
echoed round the vast harbour, but it awoke no sign from the 
French garrison. A quarter of an hour kter a second mine was 
detonated, and once again the stillness of the night was shattered. 
The garrison ashore slumbered on, secure in their belief that the 
passage of the bay could not be attempted at night. 

By 3.30 a.m. all was ready. The ships were in and had anchored 
silently, the commandos and assault troops were in their landing- 
craft and moving in to the beaches. The navigation of the assault 
craft was as faultless as that of the ships which had carried them 
in, and the men went ashore exactly as planned. 

As they landed, naval aircraft from the carriers provided fighter 
protection over the beaches and attacked French shipping in Diego 
Suarez harbour. The submarine Bive^ters was sunk by depth 
charges dropped by Swordfish aircraft, and other ships and anti- 
aircraft batteries damaged by torpedoes and bombs. The airport 
at the town of Antsirane was bombed by Albacores from the 
Indomitable and the hangars, full of French fighter aircraft, were 
left burning fiercely as the Indomitable s planes turned for home. 

Shortly before 6.0 a.m. the first "success" signal from ashore 
was seen by the watching ships, telling of the capture of one of the 
main batteries. Others followed, and by 6.30 a.m. some two 
thousand troops were ashore and advancing rapidly across the neck 
of land towards the main objective. A few enemy posts, which were 
defended stoutly and were holding up the defence, were silenced by 
shore bombardment from the guns of the destroyers. 

In the meantime a strong naval force patrolled outside William 
Pitt Bay to prevent any enemy interference from seaward. It in- 
cluded the battleship RarrdUies, the two carriers Illustrious and 
Indomitable, and seven destroyers. The cruiser ffermione, at first 


with this force, was detached to proceed round the north of the 
island and make a diversion off the entrance to Diego Suarez Bay. 

During the morning hopes for a speedy capitulation of the 
French garrison were dashed by a wireless broadcast from the 
military commander at Diego Suarez stating that he would defend 
the place to the last man. As the day wore on it became apparent 
that this was no empty boast, for the defence stiffened and the 
assaulting troops were held up. 

By noon of the following day, 6th May, Vice-Admiral Syfret, 
in command afloat, was informed that the assault had failed. "At 
about 14.00", he wrote, "the General (Sturges) arrived on board. 
He was hot, begrimed, and unhappy. Things were not going well, 
he said/' 8 In fact, they were going much better than he thought and 
were on the brink of success, but the difficulties of communication 
ashore had made it impossible to report all the advances of the 
troops, some of whom had by now penetrated the main French 
defence line. 

Vice-Admiral Syfret offered "any and all assistance" 4 which the 
Fleet could give and General Sturges asked if from twenty to thirty 
seamen could be put ashore in the town of Antsirane to attack 
the defence line from the rear. The Vice-Admiral did better. He 
called the destroyer Anthony alongside his flagship and in her 
embarked fifty Royal Marines from the Ramllies under Captain 
Price. Within an hour they were on their way. 

A heavy sea outside the harbour caused a good deal of seasick- 
ness among the marines, hardly the ideal preparation for the stern 
task that was awaiting them later that night. As the Anthony 
rounded the northern point of the island she ran into more sheltered 
waters and the pangs of seasickness subsided. 

Just after 8.0 p.m. she reached the entrance to Diego Suarez Bay 
and threaded her way in under a heavy fire from the shore batteries 
guarding the port. A strong offshore wind made it impossible to 
hold the ship alongside the deep water quay, but Lieutenant- 
Commander Hodges, the Anthony's captain, backed her stern to the 
jetty and held it there long enough for the marines to scramble 
ashore. It was a task which, in the strong wind and darkness, called 


for fine judgment and seamanship. With the marines ashore, he took 
the Anthony out to sea again, once more running the gauntlet of the 
shore batteries. 

The Royal Marines, left now to their own devices and with no 
means of retreat, groped their way south through the dockyard. 
They managed to find a route into the town and, with a few hand 
grenades, forced the surrender of the naval depot, taking into cus- 
tody the commandant of the naval barracks. As they fired their 
"success" signal, the troops outside the town pressed home their 
attack on the main French defence line. Within a few hours it was 
all over; the town of Antsirane and the whole of Diego Suarez Bay 
was firmly in British hands; a result largely due to the success of 
that hazardous enterprise launched suddenly and unexpectedly by 
the Anthony and a handful of marines at the enemy's back door. 

With the capture of Diego Suarez the threat to the Middle East 
convoys was greatly minimised. Marauding U-boats, intent on 
attacking those important reinforcement convoys, would now have 
to operate far from their normal bases and with no convenient har- 
bour in which to seek shelter almost alongside the route. Yet at the 
end of May the base at Diego Suarez was to have a taste of the 
might-have-been. By this time, because of urgent calls elsewhere, 
Vice-Admiral Syfret's anti-submarine forces had been reduced to 
two corvettes, and in the bright moonlight of the night of the 30th, 
the Ramtllies and a tanker, the British Loyalty, were both hit by 
torpedoes. A few days later two Japanese were rounded up in 
the country north of Diego Suarez and killed by a Commando 
patrol. Papers found on them revealed that they were the crew of a 
midget submarine, launched from the Japanese submarine 1.20. 

In Home waters, during the first three months of 1942, good news 
was mingling with the bad. If the escape of the three German ships 
from Brest during February had provided a grave shock to public 
opinion, the small combined operations raid on Bruneval in the 
same month and the larger operation at St. Nazaire at the end of 
March gave proof enough that a swing from the defensive towards 
a more offensive policy was in the air. These were both more than 
the general "nuisance" raids, which had so characterised British 


strategy nearly two hundred years previously during the Seven 
Years' War, In that they were also undertaken with definite tactical 
objectives; yet they had the same effect in forcing the enemy to 
keep troops stationed along the whole length of the north-west 
European coastline to guard against possible blows. They also 
served to keep the enemy guessing where the next assault should 

The raid on Bruneval took place on the night of 27th/28th 
February; its object the capture of what was hoped -would be a new 
type of enemy radar set. A small naval force of motor gunboats and 
assault landing-craft left Portsmouth in the evening and reached the 
coast of France shortly after midnight. At the same time airborne 
troops were dropped in the vicinity of the radar station, overpowered 
the defence, and rushed the post. Tearing out the radar set they 
fought their way down to the beach, covered by a small military 
force landed from the assault craft and by fire from the motor gun- 
boats. By 3.0 a.m. they were embarked and on their way back to 

A much more ambitious operation was the raid on St. Nazaire 
on 28th March. Here the principal tactical objective was the im- 
mobilisation of the large "Normandie" lock, capable of being used 
as a dry dock, and the only one outside Germany large enough to 
take the battleship Tirpit[. The immobilisation of the lock was to be 
performed by the destruction of the lock gate by the old ex- 
American destroyer Campleltown, which was to ram the gate and 
scuttle herself there. She had on board three tons of high explosive, 
timed to blow up about two and a half hours after the ramming. 
Subsidiary tactical objectives were the destruction of as much dock 
machinery as possible, for which purpose a force of Commandos 
was embarked. Commander R. E. D, Ryder was in charge of the 
naval side of the operation; Lieutenant-Colonel A. C. Newman 
was the military commander. 

Inevitably a comparison falls to be made between the blocking 
of Zeebrugge, on St. George's Day, 1918, and the destruction of 
the lock gates at St. Nazaire on 28th March, 1942, for opera- 
tions were very similar both in conception and execution. Both 


involved frontal attacks on defended ports, both had as objectives 
a denial of the ports to specific enemy ships, U-boats in the case of 
Zeebrugge and the Tirpit^ in the case of St. Nazaire. Success in both 
cases too, depended on surprise. Differences between the two 
operations were those of degree. Zeebrugge lay eighty miles from 
Dover with an entrance open to the sea; St. Nazaire was 400 miles 
from Plymouth and lies five miles up the River Loire. In 1918 there 
were no close-range, quick-firing weapons and no radar to constitute 
a threat to the assaulting force. Admiral of the Fleet Sir Charles 
Forbes, the Commander-in-Chief at Plymouth, remarked that he 
regarded the St. Nazaire operation as much more difficult than that 
on Zeebrugge. 5 And while Zeebrugge was a failure in that it did not 
stop the passage of U-boats for more than twenty-four hours, St. 
Nazaire was a resounding success. 

The force, trained in secrecy at Falmouth, sailed in the early 
afternoon of 26th March. It comprised one motor gunboat, carrying 
the naval and military force commanders, sixteen motor-launches 
taking the Commandos, H.M.S. Campbeltown, one of the old ex- 
American "four-stackers" turned over in 1940 in the "destroyers 
for bases" deal, as blockship, also carrying Commandos, one motor 
torpedo boat, and two escorting destroyers which, however, did 
not enter the river. 

All went well until dawn on the 2yth, when a U-boat was 
sighted on the surface. She was attacked by the two escorting 
destroyers, the Tymdale and Atherstone^ was hit by gunfire and 
hunted with depth charges, and thought to have been sunk. In fact, 
she survived and surfaced in the afternoon to report by wireless the 
presence of the British force. Fortunately she signalled the course of 
the British ships as west instead of east, a fact which caused the 
German authorities at St. Nazaire to consider that the motor- 
launches were withdrawing after a minelaying operation. 

As the two destroyers returned after the attack on the U-boat die 
sky became overcast with low cloud, which considerably lessened 
the risks of detection from the air. Throughout the day no ships 
more dangerous than French fishing-trawlers were sighted and, as 
darkness fell, the little force took up a special cruising order designed 

for the attack. At 10 p.m. it made contact with the submarine 
Sturgeon^ acting as a beacon at a point forty miles from St. Nazaire, 
and left her astern as the ships continued in towards their objective. 

So far all had gone well, and surprise, thanks to the westerly 
course reported by the U-boat, was complete. But as St. Nazaire 
drew nearer the danger of discovery grew, for the port was very 
strongly defended with searchlights, shore batteries, and radar. Yet 
all remained quiet ashore and the flotilla of small vessels, with the 
Campbeltown in their midst, pressed steadily on towards their goal. 
They reached a position no more than two miles from the lock gate 
still unchallenged; then the first searchlight from the northern shore 
was switched on. It was followed by all the others along both sides 
of the river, lighting up the assaulting force in full clarity. The time 
for surprise was over, and further immunity from attack could be 
gained only by subterfuge. 

Commander Ryder made a bogus identity signal and flashed, in 
German, that the ships were "proceeding up harbour in accordance 
with instructions". Most of the searchlights were switched off. A 
little later one of the shore batteries opened fire and Commander 
Ryder made the signal for "a vessel considering herself to be fired 
on by friendly forces". The firing ceased. 

Four precious minutes the equivalent of one mile were 
gained by this stratagem. But obviously it could not last. With 
about half a mile to go, the force was recognised as obviously 
hostile and a furious fire was opened from both banks of the river. 

Lieutenant-Commander S. H. Beattie, commanding the Camp- 
beltown, increased to full speed and drove his ship straight for the 
lock gates. She was hit repeatedly down her whole length, but no 
vital damage was done to check her way. At 1.34 a.m., only four 
minutes after her scheduled time, she struck the centre of the lock 
gate, her forecastle ablaze and her guns firing fiercely. So deeply did 
she penetrate that the explosive charge, stowed thirty-six feet from 
her stem, was brought level with the edge of the lock gate, the 
perfect position for maximum damage. The charge she carried 
was due to explode two and a half hours later, and the doom of 
the lock gate appeared inevitable. 


That was the main objective secured; it was for the subsidiary 
ones now to be achieved. In a hail of fire from both banks of the 
river the motor-launches had been attempting to reach their allotted 
landing-places. Some were successful, their Commandos getting 
ashore and setting about their tasks of destruction; others were less 
fortunate, being driven off by the heavy gunfire or being set ablaze 
before reaching their landing-points. 

Approximately 40 per cent, of the Commandos got ashore under 
their leader, Colonel Newman, and soon the sound of explosions in 
the surrounding buildings told the story of demolitions being 
carried on among the pumping stations and other dock machinery. 
Very considerable damage was done, and in places made even more 
effective by the Germans adding to the destruction as they fired 
wildly at the largely unseen attackers. In one case enemy forces 
on both banks were shooting at each other with a heavy cross- 
fire. 6 

At this stage, as Commander Ryder looked round the harbour, 
he counted "seven or eight blazing motor-launches and was forced 
to realise that we (motor gunboat) were the only craft left in sight". 7 
There had been no withdrawal signal from the Commandos ashore, 
and no contact by wireless with the shore. With his motor gunboat's 
deck piled with seriously wounded men, and with the fire from the 
guns ashore growing ever more intense, it was very quickly apparent 
that the men in the town could not be taken off because of the 
damage to the motor-launches. At the same moment that Comman- 
der Ryder reached this difficult decision to withdraw without the 
Commandos, Colonel Newman had come to the same conclusion 
ashore and was already organising his troops for an attempt to 
escape inland. 

Seven of the eighteen small craft engaged in the operation reached 
the open sea, all of them damaged and all with a large number of 
wounded men on board. There they were met by the destroyers 
Fernie and Brocklesby, which had to leave them almost immediately, 
however, to drive off a flotilla of five German torpedo boats. By the 
time they had completed this task, the small craft were widely 
separated, three of the motor-launches having proceeded far to the 


westward. From the badly damaged remainder the crews and 
wounded were removed and they were sunk by our own destroyers, 
but the three to the westward could not be found although a search 
was made for them. 

They were having their own adventures. During the afternoon 
they were discovered by an enemy Heinkel aircraft which, after 
circling them, came in to attack. It was promptly shot down. Two 
hours later a Bloehm and Voss seaplane shadowed them and 
dropped a bomb. It was hit and driven off to the westward. As 
darkness fell, the three small craft altered course for home, hoping 
to reach the Scilly Islands. During the following morning they 
sighted the Lizard and made their own way safely into Falmouth, 
a very gallant remnant of the two flotillas which had sailed three 
days previously. 

The sequel to this inspired raid occurred at about noon on the 
following day. Neither the explosive, charge in the Campbeltown, 
nor two torpedoes with delayed action warheads fired into the lock 
gate, had exploded when expected, because the fuses used were of 
improvised design. During the morning of the 28th a large number 
of German senior officers had gone on board the Campbeltown to 
consider how best to remove her. They were standing on the fore- 
castle when the ship blew up beneath them. A little later the two 
torpedoes followed suit, adding to the carnage. In their bewilder- 
ment and dismay the German troops gave way to panic and opened 
fire, killing some hundreds of their own men and, unhappily, many 
innocent French workmen. 

Five awards of the Victoria Cross were made to mark the extreme 
courage and fortitude of the men who fought this remarkable action. 
Commander Ryder, the senior naval officer of the force, and 
Lieutenant-Commander S. H. Beattie, commanding H.M.S. 
Campleltown, each received the award for their extreme gallantry 
and determination in pressing home the attack in the face of intense 
fire at point-blank range. Colonel Newman received it for his 
brilliant leadership and great personal courage ashore. Able-Seaman 
W. A. Savage and Sergeant T. R. Durrant, of the Commandos, 
both fought their guns to the end in spite of severe wounds and 


both received the award in recognition of their extreme devotion 
to duty and gallantry. 

Behind what might be called the "fagade" of these raids, with 
their evidence of growing Allied power, there was a very real 
foundation of solid build-up in operational strength. In spite of 
still serious losses of merchant ships the monthly average through- 
out the whole of 1942 was some 650,000 tons there was arriving 
a steady stream of men and munitions both in Britain and in the 
other campaign areas. To the output of British and Dominion ship- 
yards and factories was now added the vast industrial potential of 
the United States, reorganised with true American "hustle" on a 
war basis of maximum output, and even the heavy sinkings at sea 
could not prevent enough reinforcements getting through to add 
materially to the force stationed in Britain. 

With this growth of power came American pressure to launch 
out into new adventures. Basic agreement for a major military 
operation against Germany in 1942 had existed between the British 
Prime Minister and the American President since their meeting in 
Washington at Christmas, 1941, but the decision of where, when, 
and how was left open for future decision. The problem was dis- 
cussed by the Combined Chiefs of Staff at a series of meetings in 
Washington, with Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham and Field- 
Marshal Sir John Dill as the British representatives, and every 
possible target for an amphibious attack was canvassed. Those 
mentioned included Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, the 
Pas-de-Calais, the Cotentin Peninsula, Brest, the Gironde, Tunisia, 
Algeria, and French Morocco. A proposal to land in French North 
Africa was finally turned down by the Combined Chiefs of Staff on 
7th March, 1942, and by the following month agreement was 
reached, though with considerable reluctance on the part of Mr. 
Churchill and the British Chiefs of Staff, to mount a cross-Channel 
invasion in February, 1943. General D wight Eisenhower was 
appointed as Commander, U.S. Military Forces, Europe, and ar- 
rived in London on 24th June to initiate the detailed planning. 

Almost as he set foot in Britain two shattering events were to 
reopen the whole problem. The Soviet Foreign Minister, Mr. 


Molotov, visited Washington and painted so gloomy a picture of 
Russian ability to hold out against the German summer offensive 
that the diversion of a substantial proportion of enemy troops 
elsewhere became an essential strategical necessity. And at precisely 
the same moment came news of the fall of Tobruk and Rommel's 
advance into Egypt. The threat to the Suez Canal became very real 
and urgent, and the fate of the Middle East and with it so much of 
British hopes and plans trembled precariously in the balance. 

The whole question of a "second front" in 1942 was once again 
thrashed out by the Combined Chiefs of Staff, this time meeting in 
London, The Americans still favoured a cross-Channel operation, 
even if it only entailed the occupation of a beachhead in France in 
1942, to be held throughout the winter for future exploitation in the 
spring of 1943. The British Chiefs of Staff pointed out the difficulties 
involved in such an operation, the incessant attack by the Luftwaffe 
for months on end, the hazards of seaborne supply across the 
Channel in winter, and also the fact that such a beachhead would 
not draw more than a very limited number of German troops away 
from the Russian front. The American Chiefs of Staff remained 

It was to the Prime Minister, more than to anyone else, that the 
final decision to land in North Africa was due. Mr. Churchill had 
never forgotten that tragic battle of the Somme fought in 1916, a 
battle fought for a political, rather than a strategical, reason. He 
remembered that terrible ist July when thirteen British divisions, 
volunteers all and the fittest and finest of the English race, rose out 
of their trenches to attempt a useless and purposeless advance. On 
that ist July the first of 140 days of senseless slaughter the 
British Army, imbued with a dedicated faith, lost 57,000 casualties, 
of whom 20,000 were dead at the end of the day. Mr. Churchill could 
never forget that squandering of a nation's richness for the 
purpose of making a gesture, and was determined that it should 
never happen again. He knew well enough that it is victories, not 
gestures, which win wars. He knew, too, that America had known 
no Somraes and had no such tragic experience to guide her 


In the end, faced by Mr. Churchill's indomitable refusal to 
substitute emotion for thought and worn down by argument, the 
Americans agreed to a joint landing in French North Africa. The 
decision was taken on 25th July, 1942, and that evening Mr. Harry 
Hopkins, President Roosevelt's personal representative in Britain, 
cabled the single word "Africa** across the Atlantic. "Thank God!" 
replied Mr. Roosevelt in a laconic reply to Mr. Churchill. 8 And on 
the same day the British Prime Minister gave to this great operation, 
which was to shape the whole future course of the war, the code- 
name "Torch". 9 

While the planning for Operation "Torch" was beginning, the 
policy of continued raids against objectives on the German-held 
coasts of Europe was continued. They culminated in a large-scale 
Anglo-Canadian raid against Dieppe, originally planned for 4th 
July but postponed on account of bad weather and finally abandoned. 
Partly because of widespread public agitation for a "second front 
now", partly to give Canadian troops in Britain a chance to assuage 
their burning desire to fight somewhere, and partly to try to relieve 
the pressure on Russia by keeping the Germans guessing where 
they were to be hit next, the decision was taken to remount Opera- 
tion "Jubilee", as the raid on Dieppe was called. It was finally fixed 
for 4.50 a.m. on the morning of i9th August. 

Once more the lessons of a former war were forgotten. A not 
dissimilar operation was the landing on the Gallipoli beaches in 
1915, where the absence of supporting gunfire from the sea resulted 
in an appalling slaughter. The same story was repeated on the 
Dieppe beaches in 1942, where only the 4-inch guns of eight 
destroyers were provided to give covering bombardment. "At no 
time was the support which the ships were able to give sufficient 
for the purpose", wrote the Chief of Combined Operations in his 
report after the assault, "and this was one of the main reasons why 
the landing at the ... beaches was unsuccessful." 10 The Naval Force 
Commander, in his report, considered that the presence of a battle- 
ship "would probably have turned the tide in our favour". 11 

It may well be that the achievement of surprise, so successful in 
the raid on St. Nazaire, was considered a sufficient substitute for a 


heavy covering bombardment, but on this occasion surprise was 
not achieved. During the approach one of the assault groups en- 
countered a German coastal convoy and the resulting action gave 
away to the enemy ashore the secret of the assault. It also fatally 
disorganised one of the flank landings at Dieppe, whose objective 
was the capture of an enemy shore battery. The few men who did 
get ashore on this flank met overwhelming opposition and the 
entire force was either killed or captured. 

The other flank assault was a complete success, destroying its 
shore battery quickly and efficiently, and re-embarking with com- 
paratively few casualties. The success there, however, was not 
sufficient to swing the scale of disaster elsewhere. 

The main landings were on the sea-front of Dieppe itself, and 
it was here that the issue was decided. An essential preliminary to 
success was the capture of various gun positions which commanded 
the length of the beach. Covering fire by the destroyers enabled the 
landing-craft to get in with little delay and very few casualties, but 
once the troops were ashore they were met by a murderous fire. 
The tank landing-craft, following astern of the assault craft, were 
all severely hit and got their tanks ashore only with very great 
difficulty and some five or ten minutes later than was planned. 
This delay had most unfortunate results, for by then the German 
cross-fire on the beach had built up to so great an intensity that the 
demolition parties, who were to blow exits in the sea wall, were 
unable to carry out their task owing to very heavy casualties. 

It was at this critical moment that the guns of a battleship, had 
one been present, might have turned the failure into success. The 
effect of a naval shore bombardment by guns of the heaviest size is 
devastating, and often decisive. Within the ring of their protective 
blast the assaulting force might well have been able to reorganise on 
the beach after the initial landing and even to get the tanks into the 
town, where their presence would probably have been decisive. As 
it was, they never got off the beach, and there they had to be left 
when the raid was abandoned. 

If the raid on Dieppe has to be written off as a tactical failure, it 
was yet redeemed in two important aspects. One of them was the 


exhibition of a standard of gallantry, both by the assaulting troops 
and by the crews of the landing-craft, that was hardly excelled 
throughout the entire war. The other was that lessons were learned, 
in some cases re-learned after an interval of years, which were to 
prove of incalculable value in the big amphibious operations which 
still lay ahead. The successes which attended them were very largely 
based on lessons learned in the failure at Dieppe. 

In the meantime there were irritating delays in the planning for 
Operation "Torch", which in Mr. Churchill's mind was to be only 
part of an even larger concept of attack upon the enemy. The 
United States Chiefs of Staff conceived a dislike of the proposed 
landings inside the Mediterranean and put forward new plans at the 
end of August. These called for the abandonment of the eastern- 
most landing at Algiers, leaving only two assaults, those at 
Casablanca and Oran, to mark the start of the operation. This 
curtailment was vigorously opposed by Mr. Churchill 12 and after 
considerable argument the original plan for three landings was 
finally restored. 13 But the altercation had caused delay and "Torch", 
at first envisaged for October, was as a result put back to 

In Mr. Churchill's plans the Anglo-United States attack in the 
West was to coincide in timing with a British attack from Egypt. 
Here again there were difficulties and delays. The planned battle to 
break out of the constricting limitations of the Alamein Line de- 
pended largely on the build-up of armour, all of which had to come 
by sea and most of it from the United States. Three hundred 
Sherman tanks were shipped out from the United States to the 
Middle East, their crated engines all stowed in a single ship. Out 
of the convoy that carried the tanks and engines, that one vital 
ship with the engines was sunk by a U-boat. The American barrel 
was scraped and 300 more Sherman engines sent out in a special fast 
ship. They reached the Egyptian front in safety, and just in time to 
contribute a decisive blow when the great battle opened. 

In this great two-pronged attack on the Axis forces in North 
Africa can perhaps be seen the earliest example of the true interplay 
of sea, land, and air forces in the execution of a tremendous offensive. 

Behind the shield of the British and United States Navies the military 
forces gathered for the attack, men and munitions and the weapons 
of war. Across the oceans they came, guarded by the ships of the 
two fleets, to concentrate for the assault from east and west. And 
inside the main area of conflict, from bases at Alexandria, Malta, and 
Gibraltar, other sea and air forces were engaged at their fullest 
stretch in stopping the supplies on which the enemy depended for 
the coming battle. The true expression of maritime power, exercised 
in its widest sense, was making as certain as possible that success 
should crown the great adventure. 

Some measure of the success in stopping the enemy's supplies to 
North Africa can be gained by the study of enemy documents cap- 
tured at the end of the war. Out of 96,500 tons of shipping which 
put to sea from Italy in October 1942, only 58,000 tons reached 
North Africa. The rest was sent to the bottom by our naval and air 
forces. The figures for fuel were even more devastating, for of 
10,000 tons shipped less than 4,000 tons reached Libya. On i5th 
October the German Naval Command in Italy reported that "the 
supply position and the naval war in the Mediterranean will shortly 
be faced with a catastrophe", while Rommel himself, reporting to 
Berlin three days after the opening stage of the Alamein battle, 
stated that the Panzer Army had only enough fuel for three more 
days of fighting. It is in the light of figures such as these that the 
maritime contribution to the land campaign must be judged. 

In overall command at sea in the western Mediterranean was 
Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, thus making a welcome return 
to the Mediterranean, where he had won his greatest triumphs, from 
Washington, where he had been head of the British Admiralty 
Delegation and, as such, one of the chief planners of Operation 
"Torch". On ist November he hoisted his flag in H.M.S. Nelson as 
Naval Commander Expeditionary Force. His Deputy Naval Com- 
mander was Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, whose organising genius 
had been so apparent in the dark days of 1940. Then it had been a 
case of lifting a British army from an enemy-controlled shore and 
bringing it back to England. Now the wheel was turning, and a 
British army was going back to strike a first blow in a "series of 


assaults that were eventually to shatter the whole structure of the 
Axis war strategy. 

As the day of decision approached, two related incidents provided 
a touch of the macabre to the great operation. On 2oth September a 
Catalina crashed into the sea near Cadiz. A body drifted ashore and 
was handed over to the British by the Spanish authorities. On it was 
found a letter addressed to the Governor of Gibraltar giving the 
target date of the assault. The letter had been opened, possibly 
by the action of sea-water, possibly by an enemy agent. 1 * There 
existed the chance of compromise, and as a result the target date 
was altered from 4th to 8th November. 

The other incident was very much more hopefuL At midnight on 
2ist October the darkened British submarine P.zig, later named 
Seraph, lay off the coast of North Africa. From her, four small can- 
vas boats put off and pulled in towards the landing-beach, carrying 
a special mission of senior United States officers headed by General 
Mark Clark. 15 Ashore they met General Mast, commander of the 
French military forces in the Algiers area, and between them they 
reached a happy agreement on the general French reaction to the 
plan. During the dark hours of the morning of the 23rd the 
American party struggled through a choppy sea in their tiny boats 
to re-embark in P. 2 7.9, not without an involuntary ducking when 
two of the boats capsized. Even as they were wringing the water 
out of their clothes on board the submarine, the first "Torch** assault 
convoy sailed from the United Kingdom. 

An immense naval force was collected to escort and cover the 
convoys during their passage to Gibraltar and onwards to their 
respective goals. Force H, under Vice-Admiral Sir Neville Syfret, 
was augmented to a strength of three battleships, three aircraft 
carriers, three cruisers, and seventeen destroyers, and was to act as 
covering force to the two landings inside the Mediterranean, with a 
main duty of holding at bay the Italian Fleet should it venture out. 
As cover for the landing outside the Mediterranean, at Casablanca, 
two cruisers and three destroyers were sent to cruise in the area of 
the Azores. 

Three naval task forces were assembled to cover the landings, 

the westernmost one at Casablanca being provided by the United 
States. Those for Oran and Algiers came from the Royal Navy and 
between them consisted of 137 warships, including one battleship, 
five carriers, six cruisers, and twenty-six destroyers. The United 
States force supporting the Casablanca landing amounted to ninety- 
one ships, including three battleships, four carriers, four cruisers, 
and thirty-four destroyers, 

By ist November the last of the four assault convoys from 
Britain was on the high seas and that from the United States was 
well on the way. It remained now to steer them safely through the 
U-boats, of which some forty were at sea in the Atlantic. As fortune 
would have it, a homeward-bound convoy from Sierra Leone 
was sighted by enemy aircraft and a "wolf-pack'* of U-boats 
gathered to harry it as it steamed northwards. Ten ships were sunk 
out of it, but the U-boats were thus drawn away from the route of 
the "Torch" convoys, so much more rewarding a prize. All the 
assault convoys reached the Gibraltar area without being attacked, 
though in some cases they were reported by stray U-boats and 
aircraft. The enemy, strangely enough, failed to connect these 
movements to the southward with any offensive thrust in North 

As the various support forces and convoys an armada of some 
340 ships were moving into position for the great assault, stirring 
events were already in train in Egypt. General Alexander and General 
Montgomery had opened their campaign against Rommel on 23rd 
October and for nine days the battle swayed fiercely without any 
definite decision either way. A valiant attack by 9th Australian 
Division on 3oth October towards the coast drew off the main 
enemy strength and at i.o a.m. on the morning of 2nd November 
General Montgomery launched his spearhead. For two more days 
there was fierce fighting as Rommel committed his last reserves of 
armour in a desperate rearguard action, but by the 4th the hole in 
the Alamein Line had been successfully punched and the British 
pursuit force was beginning to stream through after a fleeing enemy. 
As they swept forward into the desert on 6th November the 
"Torch" convoys reached Gibraltar. 


For 240 years the narrow waters of the Gibraltar Straits had seen 
the might of British ships of war. Time and again they had echoed 
to the sound of British naval guns and throughout the years had 
welcomed all the heroes of the British Navy. Rooke, Leake, and 
Shovell, Torrington and Wager, Hawke, Boscawen, and Saunders, 
Rodney and Howe, Hood, St. Vincent, and Nelson all these and 
many more had fought in those historic waters. Now they were to 
see another great British fleet and to welcome another great British 

By yth November the central and eastern Task forces, whose 
objectives were Oran and Algiers respectively, were well inside the 
Mediterranean. Before dawn on the 8th the ships were in position 
and the assaulting troops, who were to land on beaches east and 
west of the two towns, were on their way in. For the first time in 
the history of war, armies from two separate continents were landing 
simultaneously upon the shores of a third. At Algiers the resistance 
was slight and good progress was made, the town capitulating by 
the evening of the 8th. The fighting at Oran was more intense, both 
on land and sea, but by noon on the loth the defenders surrendered 
and another valuable base passed into Allied hands. The all-Amer- 
ican landings in the area of Casablanca had to be fought through in 
the face of a strong French resistance but, also by the loth, all was 
over there as well. Admiral Darlan, representing the Vichy Govern- 
ment in North Africa, broadcast on that day an order to all French 
forces in North Africa, to cease fighting, and as their arms were laid 
down, the vast strategic area fell under Allied control. 16 

Landings, however, can only be the prelude to further exploita- 
tion, and it was in the follow-up to "Torch" that the decisive thrust 
could alone be made. As more and more men made their way ashore, 
so their eyes turned towards the eastward, where Tunis lay as a 
glittering prize that could solve for good and all the burning prob- 
lem of Malta. Poor and inadequate roads in the North African 
hinterland had already indicated the need to capture the harbours 
of Bougie and Bone, farther to the east, as supply ports for the 
advancing armies. They were duly taken by assault from the sea on 
nth and I2th November respectively, but ashore it was taking 


longer to concentrate the land forces than had been hoped. This 
was especially true of the air forces, because of difficulties in organ- 
ising forward airfields, and there were many naval losses from 
enemy bombers at Bougie before adequate fighter protection be- 
came available over the port. 

The physical difficulties of a land advance, allied to administrative 
difficulties in getting the armies quickly on the move, deprived 
Operation "Torch" of its full fruit. The French in Tunisia, too, 
were no more helpful to the Allied cause and, indeed, showed far 
less spirit than those in Algiers, Oran, and Casablanca. While the 
latter took up arms in an attempt to keep the Americans and British 
out, the former stood by passively and watched German and 
Italian troops, brought in by sea and air, occupy their soil. 

Tunis, so much to be desired for its geographical command of the 
Sicilian Narrows, the deathbed of so many supply ships for Malta, 
was the true goal of Operation "Torch". As soon as it could be got 
away, a small advance force from Algiers made for the port at top 
speed. Axis forces, landed in Tunisia, had the same target in view. 
The British party just failed to win the race, and by so narrow a 
margin that even token resistance by the French in Tunisia to the 
Axis occupation might have made all the difference. But not even 
token resistance was forthcoming, and its lack condemned the 
Allies to six months of bitter fighting before at last the great prize 
fell. 17 

Operation "Torch", brilliant alike in its detailed planning and 
its smooth execution, stands out as the great turning-point in the 
war in Europe, the prelude to a vast strategic plan involving a 
succession of momentous operations of a similar nature. But it did 
not stand alone. Nearly 2,000 miles away to the east the enemy had 
already suffered crushing defeat and was reeling back across the 
desert in headlong flight. Farther eastward still, on the snow- 
covered plains around Stalingrad, the Russian armies too opened 
an offensive that was soon to end with the surrender of a field- 
marshal, 16 generals, and 46,000 men, gaunt, half-starved survivors 
of a German army of 200,000. The circle of Allied power around the 
Axis, already beginning to close in, now started to move inexorably, 


swiftly, towards the day of decision. Allied sea power, stretching 
its long fingers around the world, had both held the ring and set the 
stage for offence. It had made possible the great movements of men 
and munitions across the oceans, had carried them to their battle- 
fields, had brought them their weapons, had supplied their needs in 
every possible commodity of war. The fruits of its great endeavour 
were now ripening for the harvest, and there was the scent of 
victory in the air. 


Chapter 1 1 


"/ I \ HE U-boat attack of 1942", wrote the Prime Minister, "was 
I our worst evil." 1 Figures provide at best but an arid com- 

JL mentary on the fortunes of this battle of the oceans, but in 
1942 they reached so staggering a total that their very immensity 
reflects vividly the danger in which the Allies stood throughout 
that difficult year. U-boats alone sent to the bottom 1,160 ships of 
a total tonnage of 6,266,215 tons. Other causes aircraft, mine, 
raider, E-boat, and unknown causes added another 504 ships of 
1,524,482 tons to the U-boat total. 

On the same side of the 1942 picture was the growth in numbers 
of operational U-boats. In spite of the best that could be done by 
the Allied anti-submarine forces, the German operational U-boat 
strength grew from 91 in January to 196 in October, to 212 as the 
year came to its dose, and reached a peak of 240 in April, 1943. The 
outlook was bleak indeed. 

With the institution by mid-1942 of full convoy along the 
United States coast and in the Caribbean area the second "happy 
time" of the U-boats came to an end. They left those lucrative 
hunting-groTinds and concentrated mainly in three areas, in mid- 
Atlantic beyond the range of shore-based aircraft from Britain, 
Iceland, and Canada; off the north coast of Brazil; and around the 
hump of Africa, where they could expect to meet the convoys to 
and from Freetown, in Sierra Leone. And in those areas they con- 
tinued to make hay while the sun still shone for them. 

There was still little that could be done to stop them. With the 
switch, in the late autumn of 1942, from the defensive towards a 
more offensive policy, with the great assault convoys for Operation 
"Torch" traversing the oceans, with the call for every available 
carrier to provide fighter cover over the landing-beaches, the long- 
foreseen answer to the U-boats was inevitably postponed. It was a 
situation that was particularly galling to the naval authorities 
charged with the conduct of this particular battle. 

By the late summer of 1942 the first of the new family of escort 
carriers, ordered the previous year, came into service. She was the 
Avenger ', and it has already been shown in an earlier chapter how she 
proved her worth on the Russian convoy route. In her and her 
sisters, of which six were in service by the end of the year, lay the 
final and decisive element in anti-U-boat warfare. It was not in 
surface escort alone, nor in air escort alone, that the true answer lay; 
it lay in the combination of the two along the whole length of a 
convoy route. Until the very long-range aircraft made their appear- 
ance in sufficient numbers in 1943, only the escort carrier was able 
to close those dangerous air-gaps in mid-ocean where the U-boats 
were still able to reap their grim harvest. Here, free from interfer- 
ence by patrolling aircraft, the "wolf-packs" could gather and 
swamp the surface escort by sheer weight of numbers. 

Admiral Pound, the First Sea Lord, foresaw this withdrawal of 
the U-boats from the American seaboard to the Atlantic air-gap and 
lamented the lack of "single control, based on a single, unified 
strategy" 2 as between American and British escort policy. The British 
escort vessels sent over to assist the United States Navy in the in- 
stitution of convoy along their coasts were still being retained in 
those waters and at the moment there seemed little chance of their 
release to reinforce their hard-pressed sisters in mid-Atlantic. 
Later, that "single, unified strategy" which Admiral Pound so 
earnestly desired was brought into being with electrifying success, 
but it took time to fructify. 

One of the great difficulties which faced the mid-Atlantic escorts 
was that of time. The hunting of a U-boat to full destruction is more 
often than not a lengthy affeir, needing a minimum of three or four 

ships. A convoy, however, cannot stand still in mid-ocean while its 
escorts engage in protracted hunts, and it became a delicate matter 
of decision as to the right moment to break off a hunt and rejoin 
the convoy. As a result, many promising attacks had to be broken 
off before completion, and many U-boats which might reasonably 
have been sunk, had time allowed, lived to fight another day. 

It was to try to solve this particular problem that support groups 
were introduced into the Atlantic picture in September 1942. Their 
main function was to reinforce a normal escort group as soon as 
indications of a "wolf-pack" attack became apparent, and thus 
provide the necessary hunting element without suffering the simul- 
taneous anxieties of close convoy protection. The first of the sup- 
port groups, under the leadership of Commander F. J. Walker, was 
at sea during the third week in September, but other events were to 
intervene and delay the full fruition of this move. As with the long- 
awaited escort carriers, so with this first support group. Both were 
taken from the Atlantic convoy scene to shepherd the great "Torch" 
convoys down to their landing-beaches on the African shore. The 
carriers were required not only to provide anti-submarine air escort 
en route but also to give fighter cover over the beaches for the 
assaulting troops. It was for that reason that their allocation to the 
Atlantic battle, for which they were originally intended, was so 
long delayed. 

In this situation there lay a strategical gamble of far-reaching 
importance. As 1942 began to fade towards its close it was becoming 
ever more apparent that the Atlantic* was to assume a steadily in- 
creasing importance in Allied strategical plans. The preliminary 
planning for the final act of invasion in the European campaign, 
long recognised as a necessity to bring about the climax of final 
victory, was already well advanced. The build-up of force for this 
invasion was given the code-name "Bolero", and it rested squarely 
on the ability to bring ships safely across the North Atlantic. There 
was even more depending now on the outcome of the Atlantic 
battle than the vital imports on which Britain depended for her life 
and existence. If "Bolero" was to be successful, if the forces of 
invasion were to be concentrated for the future adventure of the 


Normandy beaches, then the U-boats must first be defeated. There 
was no other way which could make that essential operation 

Throughout 1942 the losses in merchant shipping piled up 
alarmingly, outstripping the Allied capacity of replacement. The 
majority of them were independents, or stragglers from the convoys, 
always the most fruitful targets of the U-boats. Indeed, of the total 
shipping losses in 1942 attributable to U-boats, very nearly four- 
fifths of the ships sunk were sailing without escort. 

As the year turned, the high rate of loss caused by the U-boats 
continued 203,000 tons in January, 1943, when wild weather in 
the Atlantic hampered the U-boats to some extent, 359,000 tons 
in February, 627,000 tons in March. And by the end of March, as 
mentioned above, the U-boat strength had risen to 240, of which 
no fewer than 112 were at sea. Highly trained, their morale fostered 
by success, they were able to dictate, by the very nature of their 
warfare, the conditions in which the battle was being fought. The 
first five months of 1943 saw them making their supreme effort 
against the convoys in mid-Atlantic, in the ocean gap which was 
still not covered by air escort. And even in this all-out attack, when 
they concentrated against the convoys, nearly half of their suc- 
cesses came from the independently routed ships. 

It was the climax of the Atlantic battle, the crucial moment of 
decision from which one or other of the combatants would slide to 
defeat. Yet it was a "moment" to be measured in months rather than 
days, a "decision" that would not show itself in sudden defeat but 
rather as the start of a descending slope that led to the abyss. On 
that grim, groping struggle, fought out in the ocean wastes, a 
struggle largely unseen and unheralded in the clash of battle, rested 
the final destiny of mankind. The prize to the winner was no less 
than the key to final victory. 

To this battle, especially during the savage U-boat onslaught of 
the autumn of 1942, the scientists contributed the fruits of their 
skill. They designed a very short-wave radar set which could reflect 
from smaller objects at sea and against which the existing type of 
German radar search receiver was of no value. These were fitted 


to many of the surface escorts during the second half of 1942. They 
led to far more contacts with attacking U-boats and to more 
wariness in the enemy submarine commanders in making their 
attacks. The new radar set was also designed for use in Coastal 
Command aircraft, but other priorities in the Royal Air Force made 
it slow to arrive, 

To Liverpool, in November 1942, came Admiral Sir Max Horton 
as Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches, relieving Admiral 
Sir Percy Noble in the main operational direction of the Atlantic 
battle. Admiral Horton was himself a submarine officer of high 
distinction, and so brought to his new task an intimate knowledge 
of submarine ways and habits. From Admiral Noble he inherited a 
command in which most of the groundwork necessary for ultimate 
success had already been done, both in the formation and training 
of the escort groups and in the organisation of a smooth-running 
machine. The great drawback against which Admiral Noble had to 
struggle had been the shortage in operational strength, the constant 
need to scrape the barrel for every ship capable of taking over the 
duties of an escort. To his successor, Admiral Horton, was to fall 
the task of gathering in the harvest from the seed so ably sown by 
Admiral Noble. 

"Our shipping situation has never been tighter", 3 wrote the 
Naval Staff at the end of 1942. This was, if anything, an under- 
statement, for the year ended with a net loss of a milKon tons of 
shipping and a severe contraction in the total of imports in com- 
parison with 1941. Equally important in the wider sphere was the 
fact that Operation "Bolero", the build-up for the invasion of 
north-west Europe, was falling seriously into arrears. Less than one 
American division had reached Britain instead of the five which 
should by then have arrived. 

This forbidding state of affairs had been brought into being, in 
part at least, by the withdrawal from the Atlantic of the United 
States escorts in June 1942. The need for this was to free American 
destroyers for American coastal convoys, for the projected invasion 
of North Africa, and for the Pacific war. By February of 1943 the 
division of escort forces with the North Atlantic convoys was 


British, 50 per cent., Canadian, 48 per cent., and United States 
2 per cent. At a convoy conference in Washington in March 1943, 
held between the naval authorities of Britain, Canada, and the 
United States, it emerged that the Americans proposed to withdraw 
entirely from all trade convoy duties in the North Atlantic. 4 The 
extra burden, if relatively slight, yet came at a distressing moment, 
when the battle was at its fiercest and when the British and Canadian 
escort forces were stretched to their utmost. The American with- 
drawal was absorbed by Britain and Canada in a partnership that 
grew ever more close and harmonious, and was shortly to be 
crowned by staggering success. 

While the convoy conference was still sitting in Washington, 
one of the biggest, and indeed most disastrous, convoy battles of 
the war was fought out in the Atlantic. Two convoys from Halifax 
one fast, of twenty-five ships, and one slow, of fifty-two were 
concerned. 5 The fast convoy was located by the enemy early in its 
passage and soon eight U-boats were in contact. They sank twelve 
ships out of it during attacks over the next three days. Some hun- 
dred miles ahead was the slow convoy, also sighted and reported by 
U-boats. The concentration against it merged with that against the 
fast convoy as the two closed up until finally it became one great 
battle with some twenty U-boats swamping the defence and causing 
heavy damage. The loss from the two convoys was twenty-one 
ships of 141,000 tons. Only one U-boat was sunk from the many 
counter-attacks, to make the defeat an even harder one to bear. 

Beyond the darkness of this March battle, however, the dawn 
was beginning to break. The end of March saw, at long last, the 
release of the escort carriers from Operation "Torch" and their 
introduction to the vital Atlantic theatre. It saw, too, the reappearance 
of the support groups and their challenge to the U-boats 5 suprem- 
acy. Finally, it saw President Roosevelt taking a hand in the 
distribution of the very long-range Liberator aircraft, 6 and ordering 
some to the North Atlantic to help to fill the chronic gap. Twenty 
of them were in operation in the North Atlantic by die end of 
March, and forty-one by mid-April; still far too few to cover the 
needs, but yet an encouraging start. 


At the beginning of May another convoy battle was fought, to 
demonstrate only too clearly the supreme value of the support 
group and continuous air cover. An outward-bound convoy 7 was 
held up and to some extent scattered by a severe storm in an area 
south-west of Greenland known to contain a heavy concentration 
of U-boats. This was the situation for which the support groups 
were designed, and two were ordered out from St. John's, Nova 
Scotia, to augment the convoy's escort. The heavy weather delayed 
them and, before they were able to join, five ships of the convoy 
were sent to the bottom by a pack of twelve U-boats during the 
night of 4th/jth May. Four more were sunk during daylight attacks 
on the 5th, but during these attacks U. 192 was sunk by the corvette 

That night, with the support groups at last with the convoy, the 
U-boats met for the first time with the full force of the new counter- 
measures. They continued to attack the convoy, but with no suc- 
cess. The corvette Loosestrife^ however, chased and sank Z7.6j, 
the destroyer Vidette hit U.125 with her "hedgehog" and sent her 
to the bottom, the destroyer Oribi rammed and sank Z7.5jz, and the 
sloop Pelican gained a contact on U.43& and hunted her to final 
destruction. Two more U-boats were sunk by very long-range 
aircraft in the vicinity of the convoy, by Coastal Command 
and U.GSO by the Royal Canadian Air Force. It was a bitter defeat 
for the U-boats, and made even more bitter by the fact that two 
more boats, U.65$ and U.439, collided in the darkness and were 
both lost. 

That this victory was no flash in the pan, but in fact the turning- 
point in the battle, was proved by the experiences of the convoys 
which followed. The next fast convoy lost three ships, but its 
escorts sank three U-boats in exchange; out of the slow convoy 
two ships were sunk at a cost to the enemy of two U-boats des- 
troyed and some others seriously damaged. Of the next pair of 
convoys the slow reached Britain with all its vessels intact, while 
in its wake lay the corpses of U.$54, U.zSS, 17.20$, U.2?3 y and 
U.3^i. The fast convoy also arrived intact, leaving behind it 
on the ocean bed. 


The overall figures were even more staggering and portray 
vividly the effect of a fully integrated and properly constituted 
convoy system brought into being by the support groups and the 
closing of the mid-ocean air-gap. From the time the system came 
fully into being it took only five weeks to drive the U-boat fleet, 
then at the height of its power, to seek for less hazardous waters, 
and it mauled them badly in the process. The rektive losses in 
North Atlantic and U.K. waters in April were 245,000 tons of 
shipping and 15 U-boats; in May, 165,000 tons and 40 U-boats; in 
June, 18,000 tons and 17 U-boats; in July, 123,000 tons and 37 

Simultaneously, Coastal Command were employed on their own 
offensive in the main U-boat transit areas. These were the southern 
route across the Bay of Biscay and the northern route through the 
Iceland-Shetlands gap. Aircraft fitted with the centimetric radar, 
Leigh lights, and shallow-set depth charges were able to harass the 
U-boats on their way to the patrol areas in the Atlantic, and in the 
two months of April and May they sank no fewer than thirteen 
of them. Although, in terms of aircraft hours flown, these offensive 
patrols were not so productive as the air operations in the vicinity 
of the convoys, they were able to take advantage of a tactical error 
on the part of the U-boat Command, and their victims added to the 
new sense of discomfiture which the enemy submarine commanders 
were experiencing. 

It was hardly surprising that the U-boat morale cracked under 
these staggering defeats, though it would perhaps be equally true 
to remark that it was surprising that British morale had not cracked 
under the consistent hammering of the previous year and a half. 
The battle had never ceased throughout that long period; it had 
instead grown in intensity and savagery from the two years of 
Atlantic fighting that had preceded it. Now, though it still called 
for the same watchfulness and effort, the same endurance and 
endeavour, it was being waged against a foe who had not only lost 
the initiative but also some of the will to press home his attacks to 
the ultimate. 

On the cold, analytical plane this victory in the Atlantic battle 


may be laid at the door of the support group, the continuous air 
escort, the centimetric radar and the other new weapons which the 
scientists provided. But the victory went much deeper than that. 
Its real foundations lay securely based upon the courage and forti- 
tude of the men who manned the escorts, the merchant ships, and 
the aircraft, their refusal to accept defeat when it stared them in the 
face, their constant endeavour and relentless pursuit of the enemy 
when the odds were most heavily weighted against them, their 
endurance and courage which fortified them to return again and 
again to the vast battlefield. British naval history, in its span across 
the centuries, boasts a galaxy of jewelled victories that shine across 
the years with the bright lights of courage, endurance, sacrifice, and 
achievement. In the years that lie ahead, when at last the true 
appraisal can be made, it is probable that no jewel in the naval 
crown will shine with so brilliant a glow as will this long battle 
fought across the oceans of the world. 

In the whole concept of grand strategy in the European campaign 
the Atlantic stood as the fundamental battle which had to be won 
as the pre-requisite of victory. It was, as always, the task of maritime 
power to make possible the decisive thrusts of land and air power 
which alone could administer the coup de grace. The problem 
differed nothing in theory, little in practice, from those which had 
confronted Britain throughout all her wars of the past to deny to 
the enemy the riches of the world that lay across the oceans, to gain 
for ourselves the ability to move our transports and our merchant 
ships to those areas where the land battles were to be fought. In the 
dark days of 1940 and 1941 this traditional task had been made more 
difficult by the state of numerical weakness in which the Navy had 
stood in 1939. Yet throughout those grim years the ring around the 
Axis had been held at sea and every effort by the enemy to break 
through had been foiled by the natural resilience of sea power. The 
ring now was being contracted, and as the endless convoys streamed 
across the Atlantic, securely guarded at kst, so the speed of con- 
traction grew. In Britain, in North Africa, in Russia, in the tiny 
island of Malta, the sea-borne supplies of fighting men, of guns and 
tanks and aircraft, of petrol and oil fuel, of the raw materials of war, 


piled up in threatening array. All were carried by sea, guarded 
against attack by the maritime forces of the Allies, and their safe 
arrival at their various destinations was eloquent of the coming 
offensive. The great victories that lay ahead, in which the Allied 
armies and air forces were to shatter the final resistance of the 
enemy, were made possible only by the full opening of the sea 
routes to the all-essential shipping; ever the traditional task of the 
Navy in war. The oceans' doors were now fully opened. So it was 
that history repeated itself in the overall pattern of war. By mid- 
1943 the main task of the navies in the West had been accomplished, 
and it was the turn of the armies and the air forces now to go in 
and win the victory. 

As in the Atlantic, so also in the Arctic, though the problem there 
was complicated by surface-ship strength. In spite of Hitler's tirade 
to Raeder of 6th January, I943, 8 which resulted in the latter's 
resignation, Doenitz, the new Commander-in-Chief, had persuaded 
the Fuehrer, and incidentally himself as well, that capital ships still 
had a useful part to play in German naval strategy. As one result of 
this, the Scharnhorst was sent up to the far north to reinforce the 
Tirpit^ and Liit^ow, even though Hitler was still sceptical. "Even 
if it requires six months [to force an action in the far north]," he 
said to Doenitz, "you will then return and be forced to admit that 
I was right/' 9 In fact, it was ten months before Doenitz was called 
upon to explain to his Fuehrer how it was that the big ships had 
failed yet again. 

The reason for the delay was the temporary cessation of the 
convoys to North Russia. By the beginning of April the Arctic 
night begins to pale into the long summer twilight in which both 
U-boats and aircraft could operate around the clock. The beginning 
of April also saw the moment of crisis in the Atlantic, when every 
escort was needed to stave off disaster. By holding back the Russian 
convoys seventeen more destroyers were freed for the Atlantic 
battle. Superbly trained in anti-submarine warfare, they formed the 
hard core of the new support groups and it was their contribution 
to the Atlantic battle which so largely turned the scale in May, June, 
and July. 


Yet the concentration of German heavy ships in northern Nor- 
way was nonetheless a threat which the Home Fleet could not 
ignore. Although throughout the summer there were no Russian 
convoys for them to attack, they were admirably poised for a 
sudden break-out into the Atlantic. The Home Fleet, weakened by 
the despatch of two modern battleships to the Mediterranean for 
further operations there, was brought temporarily up to strength by 
the arrival of two United States battleships at Scapa, and on Admiral 
Tovey fell the duty of making certain that the enemy ships did not 
escape. After 8th May this duty fell to Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, 
who relieved him as Commander-in-Chief. 

The three German ships remained obstinately at anchor in their 
northern sanctuary and defied every effort to reach them. The Royal 
Air Force heavy bombers had not the necessary range to reach 
Altenf jord with a large bomb load and to return; the Fleet Air Arm 
was too heavily engaged elsewhere for carriers to be spared for such 
an operation. An attack by submarine was out of the question, for 
any attempt to penetrate by normal craft the long, defended fjord 
would be suicidal. It was a naval problem old as time, often solved 
in the past by the release of fireships with a favourable, onshore wind. 
A modern version of the fireship offered little prospect of success, 
and it seemed that only a new and novel weapon could hope to 
penetrate the heavily defended and inaccessible anchorage. 

The new weapon was evolved in 1941, with just such a contin- 
gency in mind, and two prototypes carried out successful trials in 
1942. On 1 2th May of that year a contract for six of them was placed 
and they were delivered to the Navy in January 1943. Known as 
X-craft, they were tiny submersible boats of thirty-five tons dis- 
placement with an overall length of 51 feet. They carried a crew of 
three officers and one engine-room artificer, were capable of diving 
to a depth of 300 feet, and carried as their armament two detachable 
saddle charges, each containing two tons of Amatex (a particularly 
powerful explosive) which were dropped on the^bottom under the 
target and fired by clockwork time-fuses. Their crews were all men 
who had volunteered for "special and hazardous service". 

The training for this desperate adventure was as thorough and 


as detailed as possible. Reconnaissance aircraft had photographed 
the German anchorage in Alterif jord and the conditions were re- 
produced as faithfully as possible in the Scottish Loch Cairnbawn, 
even to the extent of providing Home Fleet battleships protected 
by nets designed as nearly as possible to duplicate those protecting 
the German ships. By the end of the summer the chosen crews were 
so fully trained as to justify good hopes of success, and D-day for 
the actual operation was fixed for 20th September, when there 
would be just sufficient moonlight to assist the X-craft in their 
intricate navigation up the fjord. 

To reach their operational area the X-craft were towed by normal 
submarines and were provided with two crews each, one to make 
the passage and the other to carry out the attack. On loth September 
the Flag Officer Submarines, Rear-Admiral C. B. Barry, arrived at 
Loch Cairnbawn to inspect the crews; on the nth the operational 
crews embarked in the six towing submarines the Thrasher, 
Truculent, Stubborn, Syrtis, Sceptre, and Seanymph and late that 
evening the little expedition sailed. They had over 1,000 miles to go. 

Two of the X-craft broke adrift during the long passage to the 
north; one was recovered and a new tow passed, the other was 
never seen again. The troubles of the first, however, were not over, 
for on the following day her side charges flooded and had to be 
jettisoned. As they detonated on the bottom they did so much 
damage to the X-craft that her crew had to be taken off and the 
vessel sunk. 

That left four, and by i9th September the towing submarines 
made their landfall successfully and had transferred the operational 
crews. On the evening of D-day, 2Oth September, the four X-craft, 
their crews "in great spirits and full of confidence", were slipped 
to continue their voyage alone. They quickly disappeared into the 
darkness as they steered to the southward towards the entrance of 

They crossed the German minefield guarding the fjord on the 
surface and successfully reached the entrance of the small Kaa Fjord 
at the head of Altenfjord, in which the Tirpit^ lay, guarded by her 
nets. In the original plan three X-craft were detailed to attack the 


ith two the Scharnhorst, and one the Lut%ow. The four that had 
now reached the end of their journey contained all three allocated 
to the Tirpiti and one whose target was the Scharnhorst. This last 
was Xio, which suffered such a series of mishaps that in the end 
she had to return without making her attack. 

The other three were X5, X6, and Xj, and by the evening of the 
2ist they had reached their waiting position off Bratholme Island, 
opposite the entrance to Kaa Fjord. They spent the first half of the 
night there charging their batteries, making good defects which 
had occurred during the passage, and dodging the German traffic. 
Ahead of them, moored close under the overhanging cliffs, lay the 
Tirpiti. Already they had come some 1,200 miles; there remained 
only six more to cover before they came to grips with their enor- 
mous opponent* 

Shortly after midnight the first of the midgets crept out of her 
wailing position, dived to periscope depth, and proceeded on her 
desperate venture. The others followed her shortly afterwards. 
The sky was dull and overcast and a fresh breeze was whipping the 
surface of the sea into white horses. It was the sort of weather for 
which a submarine officer prays, and hopes 'were very high as the 
three tiny craft nosed their way in past the elaborate harbour 

Of the three midgets which, on this dark morning of 22nd 
September, set out to cripple the Tirpit^ none returned, and the 
story of their attack is pieced together from the survivors' mem- 
ories and the German records. Two at least, after tremendous 
difficulties, forced their way through the nets and laid their charges 
under the great battleship X&, whose captain and crew were taken 
prisoner by the Tirpit^ when she was finally scuttled alongside the 
target, and Xy, similarly sunk after the charges had exploded. 
From her crew the commanding officer and one other escaped. Of 
the third, X 5, little is known. Half an hour after the explosion she 
was sighted by the Germans outside the Tir/u^s anti-submarine 
nets and sunk by gunfire and depth charges. There were no sur- 
vivors, and it will now never be known whether she had already 
reached the Tirpit^ laid her charges, and was on the way out, or 


(Bight) The German battleship 
Tirpitz in her Norwegian hide- 
out. Her gun turrets are disguised 
and the lines of anti-torpedo nets 
can be seen behind her. 

(Below) The Fleet Air Arm 
attack on the Tirpitz in Alten 
Fjord. A photograph taken from 
an attacking Barracuda. 


Imperial War Museum,) 

(Above) Invasion of North-West Europe. Admiral Ramsay, General Eisenhower, 

and Fidd Marshal Montgomery on board the cruiser Apollo off the Normandy 


(Below) German beach defences in Normandy, Submerged at high water, they 

caused much damage to the landing craft until they were cleared. Each was armed 

with an explosive mine. 

(Photographs: Imperial War Museum.} 

whether she was still trying to get through the nets on her way in. 

There remains the German account. Until seven o'clock on the 
morning of the 22nd all was quiet. The hands had been called, the 
normal day watches set, and work about the ship carried out in the 
usual daily routine. Seven minutes later, "a long black submarine- 
like object" 10 was sighted and reported to the officer of the watch. 
It was thought to be a porpoise, but was in fact X6, which was 
inside the net defence but had run aground when her compass had 

Five minutes later the alarm, was raised on board the Tirpit^ with 
a vengeance. X6, in getting clear of the shore, broke surface once 
again about thirty yards abeam of the ship and this time was 
correctly identified. Divers were sent down to examine the hull for 
limpet mines, and orders were given to raise steam and proceed to 
sea "in order to leave the net enclosure before the time-fused mines 
detonate". 11 These orders were cancelled a few minutes later when 
a second midget, which was Xy^ was sighted, the first intimation 
that more than one craft was involved in the attack. The picture 
that this sighting presented in the German mind was of a number of 
small submarines lurking in the fjord, an idea that was strengthened 
an hour later when a third (JT5) was sighted just outside the nets. 
It was decided to keep the Tirpit^ within the net defence and to try 
to minimise the damage by swinging her away from the charges 
before they exploded. It was during the course of this operation 
that they went up. 

The explosions below her hull lifted the 45,ooo-ton battleship 
some feet out of the water. All the lights in the ship went out, the 
fire extinguishers on the bulkheads were wrenched from their 
housings and started belching foam, the decks were covered with 
broken glass from scuttles and mirrors. The whole ship was in an 
uproar. This, however, was all only minor damage. Far more 
serious was the fact that all three main engines were out of action, 
the rudders and steering engine were severely damaged, and some 
hundreds of tons of sea water had entered the double bottoms 
through flooding. The German Naval War Staff considered that the 
Tirpit{ would be out of action for six months at the least and that 


she might, in fact, never regain operational efficiency. In point of 
fact she never did, but that is a story to be told later. 

Of the twelve men who manned the three X-craft which attacked, 
six survived to tell the tale, all of them as prisoners-of-war. The 
commanding officers of X$ and Xj, Lieutenant D. Cameron, 
R.N.R., and Lieutenant B. C G. Place, R.N., both received the 
award of the Victoria Cross for this gallant attack, the remaining 
surviving officers were decorated with the D.S.O., and the engine- . 
room artificer with the C.G.M. 12 In his final despatch to Their 
Lordships the Flag Officer Submarines wrote: "In the full know- 
ledge of the hazards they were to encounter, these gallant crews 
penetrated into a heavily defended fleet anchorage. There, with cool 
courage and determination, and in spite of all the modern devices 
that ingenuity could devise for their detection and destruction, they 
pressed home their attack to the full. It is clear that courage and 
enterprise of the very highest order in the close presence of the 
enemy was shown by these very gallant gentlemen, whose daring 
attack will surely go down to history as one of the most courageous 
acts of all time." 18 

This crippling of the Tirpit[ came just in time to take some of the 
anxiety off Admiral Eraser's shoulders when the Russian convoys 
were restarted in November, They sailed with the same pattern of 
escort as had proved so effective in the later convoys of 1942, a 
strong, close escort of destroyers and corvettes, a covering force of 
cruisers to see the convoys right through to their destination, and a 
distant cover of the Home Fleet to guard against a sortie by the 
enemy's heavy ships. With the Tirpit^ now out of action and only 
the Scharnhorst to guard against, only part of the Home Fleet was 
required for this duty and no longer the whole of it. 

The December convoy, JW 55, was sailed in two portions, A 
and B, each consisting of nineteen merchant ships. The first half, 
JW 5 5 A, left Loch Ewe on i2th December and reached the Kola 
Inlet in north Russia without mishap. During its passage the 
Commander-in-Chief took the opportunity of taking his heavy 
support force right through to Russia in order to establish personal 
contact with the Russian naval Commander-in-Chief. On the 


conclusion of this visit he returned with his ships to Iceland to refuel 
before covering the second half of the convoy. 

Admiral Fraser was convinced that the successful passage of 
JW 5 5 A, and incidentally of the November convoy, would tempt 
the enemy out to attack JW 5 56. As a result he laid his plans for the 
second convoy on the assumption that it would lead to an action 
with the Scharnhorst. As with JW 55 A, he provided the distant 
cover with his flagship the Duke of York, the cruiser Jamaica, and 
the destroyers Savage, Saumare^, Scorpion, and the Norwegian 
Stord. Close cover was provided by Vice-Admiral Burnett with the 
cruisers Belfast, Norfolk, and Sheffield, while the convoy itself had 
a close escort of fourteen destroyers, two sloops, and a mine- 

The Commander-in-Chief's plan of action, in the event of an 
encounter with the Scharnhorst, was, first, to close the enemy to 
within 12,000 yards and illuminate him with starshell; second, to 
form the four screening destroyers into two subdivisions and send 
them in to make torpedo attacks, and third, to keep the Jamaica in 
close support of the Duke of York but with freedom to open the 
distance if heavily engaged. So certain did Admiral Fraser feel that 
the Scharnhorst would come out that he practised several night- 
encounter exercises with his ships, culminating in a final one after 
sailing from Iceland, with the Jamaica playing the part of the 
Scharnhorst. He also stressed in a final meeting of all the comman- 
ding officers, that "every officer and man must be doubly sure that 
he knew his night action duty*'. 14 Seldom, since the days of Nelson, 
can a squadron so highly trained for one particular operation have 
put to sea. 

On the German side the planning was less specific. Grand 
Admiral Doenitz, remembering his interview with Hitler of the 
previous February, was anxious to make good his assurances on the 
value of the capital ship in convoy operations. He reasoned that 
since two convoys had already reached Russia unscathed, a third 
would be less prepared for trouble. In fact, as shown above, the 
exact opposite was the case, and it was because of the safe passage 
of the first two that Admiral Fraser expected, and was fully pre- 

pared for, an attack on the third. At a meeting with Hitler on 
December, Doenitz informed the Fuehrer that the next convoy to 
Russia would be attacked by the Scharnhorst, 13 and it was therefore 
almost entirely for this political reason of convincing Hitler that 
Doenitz, as soon as he knew that the convoy was at sea on 22nd 
December, ordered the Scharnhorst and five destroyers to prepare 
for the operation. 

The convoy was already being shadowed and reported by air- 
craft, and as a result of these reports a patrol line of eight U-boats 
was formed west of Bear Island in order to intercept the approaching 
merchant ships. The German aircraft succeeded in maintaining 
contact with the convoy throughout the 23rd and most of the 24th. 
They lost touch late that day, but by 9 a.m. on Christmas Day 
U.ffoz had reported that she was in contact. From then on the 
submarine continued to shadow, sending in constant signals of the 
convoy's progress, and just after 2.0 p.m. on Christmas afternoon 
the German Naval Staff ordered the Scharnhorst and her destroyers 
to sea. Five hours kter they moved down the fjord, and as they 
emerged from the shelter of the land they found a tumultuous sea 
running. Rear- Admiral Bey, in command of the operation with his 
flag flying in the Scharnhorst, reported at 9.0 p.m. that the destroyers 
were being badly handicapped by the heavy weather, leaving to 
the Commander-in-Chief the decision whether in these conditions 
the operation should continue. That night Doenitz took the decision. 
If the destroyers could not remain at sea, the Scharnhorst was to go 
on alone. Admiral Bey received this signal at 2.0 a.m. on the 26th, 
and as a result continued his course to the northward. The 
Sckarnhorst's die was cast. 

From Iceland came the Duke of York, Jamaica, and their four 
destroyers. Admiral Fraser sailed just before midnight on the 23rd, 
steering to the eastward towards Bear Island. The destroyers, bat- 
tered by the heavy seas, had difficulty in keeping up with the two 
larger ships and the speed of the fleet was reduced to fifteen knots. 

At about the same hour on the 23rd the three cruisers of the close 
support force sailed from North Russia, having safely delivered the 
first half of the convoy. These were the Belfast, flying the flag of 


Vice-Admiral R. Burnett, and the Norfolk and Sheffield. Between 
the two support forces was the convoy, with its close escort of 
destroyers and sloops. 

On Christmas Day the weather, already stormy, became worse, 
even the Duke of York finding it very uncomfortable as she steamed 
into it. For the destroyers, of course, it was even heavier going but 
they kept up gallantly in the wild weather. 

In the very early hours of the 26th the Commander-in-Chief 
received the signal for which he had been waiting. In the Admiralty 
the Operational Intelligence Centre, alert as ever to any changes in 
the enemy's wireless traffic, deduced from the number of signals 
sent that an important movement was taking place in the far north. 
Just after 3.0 a.m. a signal went out to Admiral Fraser appreciating 
that the Scharnhorst was at sea, and it was received in the flagship 
half an hour later. The Duke of York increased speed to twenty-four 
knots, and in the south-westerly gale which was blowing the 
destroyers had great difficulty in avoiding broaching-to in the.heavy 
sea- The flagship's bows were almost constantly under water. 

By 7.30 a.m. the three forces were all converging on the convoy, 
the Scharnhorst and her destroyers steering north, Admiral Burnett 
and his cruisers steering north-west, and the Commander-in-Chief, 
still a long way to the west, steering east-north-east at his best 
speed. At that same moment, Rear-Admiral Bey detached his 
destroyers to form a line of search for the convoy. They steamed 
away from the Scharnhorst, leaving her by herself to fight the last 
battle of her career. 

An hour later the first contact was made. The Belfast, steaming 
up with the Sheffield and Norfolk to join the convoy, got an echo on 
her radar at about eighteen miles range, and the cruisers closed 
rapidly. Three-quarters of an hour later the Sheffield reported the 
enemy in sight and the Belfast opened fire with starshelL 

The first intimation received by the Scharnhorst that British 
forces were in her neighbourhood was when the starshell burst 
above her, lighting up the Arctic night with a dull yellow glow. A 
minute or two later she was hit by an 8-inch shell from the Norfolk 
which burst in her fore-top, causing many casualties and shattering 


her fore radar set. A second shell burst on her forecastle. She was 
now steering south-east and, increasing speed to thirty knots, she 
drew rapidly clear to the southward with the three cruisers in chase 
but unable to catch up with her. 

It was at this moment that a signal was received on board the 
Scharnhorst from Admiral Doenitz, exhorting her to strike a blow 
for the German troops on the Eastern front by destroying the con- 
voy. She altered course again to the north-east and by so doing 
sealed her fate. Admiral Burnett, rightly assuming that she was 
trying to work round the convoy from ahead, made straight for 
the merchant ships to give them extra protection. This meant 
losing contact temporarily with the enemy, though he was con- 
fident of regaining it later when the Scharnhorst returned to the 

The loss of contact placed the Commander-in- Chief in a dilem- 
ma. The time was fast approaching when the destroyers with the 
Duke of York would either have to turn back, because of fuel shortage, 
or go right through to Russia. It was quite possible that the Scharn- 
horst had already abandoned the operation, especially as German 
aircraft were in contact with the Duke of York and had certainly 
reported her position. If the Scharnhorst were on the way home, 
then Admiral Fraser could not catch her. But a few minutes after 
noon his doubts were set at rest. The Belfast was once again in 
radar contact, fifteen minutes later the Scharnhorst was in sight 
from the Sheffield, and in another five minutes was once more being 
hit. Four destroyers, detached from the escort of the empty ships 
returning from Russia, had now joined the cruisers and were 
ordered to attack with torpedoes. In the very heavy sea that was 
running they were unable to close the range sufficiently though all 
of them opened fire with their guns. 

This second engagement decided Admiral Bey to abandon the 
operation and he set course for home. But already he was too late. 
His second attempt to find the convoy had given Admiral Fraser 
rime to work far enough to the east to cut the Scharnhorst off, and 
in the Duke of York hopes of action were growing into certain- 
ties. It was time for Admiral Fraser to put his plan of battle 


into operation, and he disposed his destroyers in two sub- 
divisions, one on either bow, to be in readiness to attack with 

As the Scharnkorst steered south-east she was shadowed con- 
tinuously by Admiral Burnett's cruisers, and a series of position 
reports kept Admiral Fraser fully informed of the enemy's move- 
ments. At 4.15 p.m. the Duke of York* $ radar picked up the Scharn- 
horst at a range of twenty-three miles, and from that moment 
Admiral Fraser knew he had her at his mercy. 

Half an hour later the Belfast, still shadowing from the north, 
illuminated the target with starshell. The Duke of York followed 
suit, and as the great guns of the flagship swung on to the target the 
gunnery officer wrote in his report: "At first impression the Scharn- 
hoTst appeared of enormous length and silver grey in colour." 16 
As the 14-inch guns fired their opening salvo the range was no 
more than 12,000 yards. 

As was the case earlier in the day, Admiral Bey was again taken 
completely by surprise. His first knowledge of the presence of a 
British battleship was the Duke of York's shells landing on the 
Scharnhorst* $ quarterdeck. He at once altered course to the north to 
try to escape, found the Belfast and Norfolk there, and swung round 
to the east, increasing to full speed. 

The hunt was now on, and all ships settled down to chase the 
flying enemy. At 5.15 p.m. Admiral Fraser sent his destroyers off 
to carry out their part of the plan. But in the very heavy sea that was 
running they found it difficult to gain on the Scharnhorst. To 
Admiral Fraser, watching anxiously the progress of the four 
destroyers as they crept up so slowly, it seemed for a moment as 
though the Scharnhorst might yet escape out of the trap. Everything 
now depended on the destroyers. 

The Duke of York was still firing at the flying Scharnhorst and at 
6.20 p.m. hit her aft. This must have damaged her considerably, for 
she reduced speed. It gave the destroyers their chance and they 
began to forge ahead rapidly to reach good firing positions. Admiral 
Bey must have known then that his ship was doomed, for he sent 
at that moment a signal to Hitler: "We shall fight to the last shell"; 


but as yet that knowledge was denied to the British ships. To them 
it was still touch and go. 

Between 7.50 and 7.55 p.m. both sub-divisions of destroyers 
succeeded in making their torpedo attacks. Closing right in to a 
range that varied between 3,500 and 1,800 yards, between them 
they hit her four times. Although under heavy fire from the 
Scharnhorst 9 ^ secondary armament, they pressed their attack home 
to almost point-blank range. 

The battle was now approaching its end. The Duke of York and 
Jamaica, which had ceased fire while the destroyers went in, now 
opened up again and hit the Scharnhorst repeatedly. Her speed 
dropped right down until she was almost stationary, the target of a 
gruelling fire. Battered by gunfire, crippled by the four torpedoes 
from the destroyers, resistance was almost at an end. Admiral 
Fraser ordered the Jamaica and Belfast to finish her off with tor- 
pedoes. As they closed in and fired, the four destroyers which had 
been attached to Admiral Burnetts cruisers also arrived on the 
scene. Between the cruisers and destroyers, seven torpedo hits were 
claimed. The Scharnhorst took a heavy list to starboard and was 
obviously near her end. 

"By now all that could be seen of the Scharnhorst was a dull glow 
through a dense cloud of smoke which the starshell and searchlights 
of the surrounding ships could not penetrate. No ship therefore saw 
the enemy sink, but it seems fairly certain that she sank after a heavy 
underwater explosion which was heard and felt in several ships at 
about 19.45."" So wrote the Commander-in-Chief in his despatch. 
When the Belfast went in three minutes later to make her second 
attack, the wreckage strewn on the water told its own tale. 

The darkness, the heavy weather, and the icy water of the Arctic 
afforded little chance of survival to the unhappy crew of the Scharn- 
horst* Though the destroyers searched for an hour, no more than 
thirty-six were rescued from a total complement of very nearly 

So perished the pride of the German Navy. Even if Hitler, when 
informed of the loss of this fine ship, could say in effect "I told you 
so", he must at the same time have felt the strands of the net closing 


in upon him. For these were reckoned to be German waters, 
dominated by German aircraft and U-boats, and by the heavy ships 
of the German Fleet. The defeat of the Scharnfiorst was a sorry blow 
to German naval pride, and no doubt Doenitz had an uncomfortable 
half-hour explaining to his Fuehrer the reasons for this new disaster. 
The ripples of this defeat reached farther than the immediate 
waters in which the Scharnhorst met her end. The morale of the 
enemy at sea, already beginning to crumble under the Allied on- 
slaught in the Atlantic against the U-boats, dropped rapidly away. 
One more milestone along the road to victory had been passed, one 
more sea route and that right under the nose of the enemy made 
safer for the merchant ships to carry to the fighting fronts yet more 
of the weapons of war. Throughout the Third Reich the first faint 
breaths of the chill wind of defeat were beginning to blow, and 
their icy fingers were prophetic of approaching doom. 

Chapter 12 


WITH the great two-pronged Allied attack from east and 
west safely launched in North Africa and making good 
progress, the Prime Minister of Great Britain and the 
President of the United States met in conference at Casablanca on 
i4th January, 1943. With the two war leaders were their respective 
Chiefs of Staff, the area Commanders-in-Chief, and the Chief of 
Combined Operations. The purpose of the conference, so far as the 
Mediterranean was concerned, was to decide the strategic policy to 
be followed after the final defeat of the enemy in North Africa. 

The problem presented few difficulties. The basic requirement 
for future operations in this theatre was the safety of through 
communications by sea in the Mediterranean. Only with that 
guarantee could the true flexibility of maritime power be used to 
mount the next assault; it remained, as ever in the past, the cardinal 
requirement for any extension of the war into Europe. And that 
Europe was to be the next objective none could possibly doubt. 

Already, as Mr. Churchill and Mr. Roosevelt studied the ques- 
tion, much had been done to make the answer clearer. Malta, for so 
long hanging on a frail thread of existence, had been relieved in 
mid-November 1942 by the unmolested arrival of a convoy of 
supply ships from Port Said. Four more convoys followed at short 
intervals, all of them arriving without mishap. The supplies which 
they unloaded marked not only the end of the long months of siege 
but also the emergence of the island, for the first time in the Mediter- 


ranean war, as a really secure base from which future operations 
could be launched. 

Inevitably, as they studied the problem of the all-essential sea 
communications, the eyes of the two war leaders fell upon the 
narrow channel in the central Mediterranean, that eighty-mile 
stretch of water which divided Cape Bon, in Tunisia, from Marsala, 
in the south-western corner of Sicily. Those waters were already 
strewn with the wrecks of many fine ships, Allied and enemy alike, 
victims of the need to force through supplies to Malta on the one 
side, to Rommel on the other. It needed no expert eye to realise that 
the capture of Sicily would make those waters safe for Allied 
shipping. And of equal importance in the strategic development of 
the war was the value of Sicily as a base for future operations against 
Italy. The decision to invade was quickly taken and the Comman- 
ders-in-Chief of the sea, the land, and the air were charged with the 
preparation of detailed plans. To the assault was given the code- 
name of Operation "Husky" and a provisional date fixed for the 
moonlight period of June. As events turned out it had eventually 
to be advanced to the corresponding period in July. 

Commanding-in-Chief at sea was Admiral Cunningham, who 
had returned to the Mediterranean to conduct the naval side of 
Operation "Torch" as Naval Commander Expeditionary Force. 
On 2oth February he resumed his more famous title of Commander- 
in-Chief Mediterranean, and Admiral Harwood, who had relieved 
him at the end of the previous March, became Commander-in-Chief 
Levant, and responsible only for the eastern Mediterranean. With 
the change in title came also a change in command area, giving to 
Admiral Cunningham naval dominion over Malta and the Tunisian 
ports, from which the invasion of Sicily would be largely mounted. 
As his Deputy Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Cunningham was 
given Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, and it was into his well-tried 
hands that the Commander-in-Chief placed the responsibility for 
the organisation and training of the invasion forces. 

Meanwhile, of course, the naval battles of the North African 
campaign had still to be fought. The advances of both the British 
8th Army from Alamein and the Anglo-United States armies from 


French North Africa were in a sense amphibious, requiring continual 
support and sustenance from the sea as they progressed along their 
respective coasts. This support and supply were the responsibilities 
of the two Inshore Squadrons, one at each end of the Mediterranean. 
Military supplies of all sorts were brought up by sea under the 
escort of the Inshore Squadrons and landed, sometimes across the 
beaches, sometimes in ports which had first to be cleared and made 
workable after heavy demolition by the retreating enemy. Channels 
into these ports were swept by the minesweepers of the two squad- 
rons, and much of the work was done under frequent attack by 
U-boat and aircraft. Throughout the campaign there could be no 
let-up, no easing of the burden, for the momentum of advance on 
shore depended on the supply by sea. General Montgomery paid 
his tribute to this work of the Navy when he signalled: "Without 
the safe conduct of tanks, petrol, and other munitions of war to 
Tobruk, Benghazi, and Tripoli, the 8th Army would have been 
unabk to launch the offensive." 1 That the 8th Army's offensive was 
not only launched but maintained with undiminished momentum 
throughout reflects in part the exemplary and tireless work of the 
Inshore Squadron. 

Of equal importance with the supply of our own armies was the 
stopping of supplies to the enemy's. Everything that Rommel 
required, petrol for his tanks, shells for his guns, food and clothing 
for his troops, had to come by sea, ferried across the narrow waters 
of the Sicilian Channel. Even in the days of Aris dominion over 
those waters, when their ships, aircraft, and U-boats made the move- 
ment of any Allied ship hazardous in the extreme, Rommers supply 
convoys had been often shattered by attack from the air, from the 
surface, and from below the surface. Control of those sea areas 
had now slipped from the Axis grasp. It was firmly held by the 
Mediterranean Fleet, assured by two cruiser squadrons the i5th 
(Cleopatra, Orion, and Euryalus) based at Malta, and the I2th 
(Aurora, Penelope, Dido, and Sirius) based at Bone by a growing 
force of destroyers and motor torpedo boats and gunboats, and 
by two submarine flotillas, the gallant loth which still operated 
from Malta and the 8th now based at Algiers. Command of the air 


above these waters was in the hands of eight RAJ. and three Fleet 
Air Arm bomber and torpedo-bomber squadrons operating from 
Malta, while fighters flew from the new bases gained during the 
advance along the North African coast. Behind them all, a guarantee 
of immunity from sudden attack by the main Italian Fleet, lay Force 
H, now commanded by Vice-Admiral Willis, and built up to a 
strength of two 1 6-inch battleships (Nelson and Ef>dney\ one fleet 
carrier (Indomitable)^ and twelve destroyers. With such a force, sea 
command of the Sicilian narrows was virtually absolute. 

As the two advances, from east and west, developed, the pressure 
against the enemy's supply convoys was intensified. The acquisition 
of new bases ever nearer the area of conflict enabled the smaller 
warships, the motor torpedo boats and gunboats, to be used against 
them, and sweeps against Axis shipping were carried out by night 
and day. The margin of success jumped to new heights, and of 
every three ships which left Italy to run the gauntlet of British 
maritime power, only one succeeded in reaching Tunisia. It was this 
crippling loss of vitally-needed supplies which in the end sapped the 
Axis ability to fight and brought Germany and Italy down to defeat 
in North Africa. 

By 8th May the Allied grip had so tightened that the end was in 
sight. Ashore, the armies were entering Bizerta; at sea, destroyers 
and light coastal craft had established a close blockade of Cape Bon. 
The traffic to be stopped now was in the opposite direction. A 
quarter of a million soldiers, reduced to their last narrow strip of 
shore, were waiting to be taken off. There were, perhaps, memories 
of Dunkirk, of Greece, and of Crete in Admiral Cunningham's 
mind on that morning of 8th May when he made a signal to his 
ships: "Sink, burn, and destroy. Let nothing pass." 2 

Nothing passed. The main fleet of Italy, which might have risked 
a sortie to cover an evacuation, remained in its harbours. The few 
ships that tried to make their way home were quickly sunk, the few 
men who hoped to escape in small boats were soon rounded up and 
taken prisoner by the watchful British warships. Th^Axis defeat in 
North Africa was complete and absolute, and a vast army of the 
enemy was gathered in to swell the prisoner-of-war cages. 


As the noise of battle died away in North Africa in this mass 
surrender, thoughts of the next step to be taken occupied all men's 
minds- Already the plans for the invasion of Sicily were well 
advanced. Under the watchful eyes of Admiral Ramsay the ships 
and the men were training and exercising. The operational plan was 
a massive one, involving in the initial assault some 3,000 ships, 
160,000 men, 14,000 vehicles, 600 tanks, and 1,800 guns. 

Operation "Torch", the invasion of North Africa during the 
previous November, had been a demonstration of planning at its 
best. Armies had crossed the oceans from different continents, 
converging on to their target beaches with consummate accuracy 
and brilliant timing. A vast quantity of weapons and stores was 
landed with the men, and with it all the priceless element of surprise 
had not been lost. Operation "Husky", now to occupy the centre 
of the strategical stage, was planned with the same brilliance and 
owed much of its success to the lessons learned in North Africa. 

An elaborate deception plan was put into operation with the 
object of making it appear that Sardinia and Greece were to be the 
scenes of the next Allied landings. False information was allowed to 
fall into Spanish hands by means of papers on a body floated ashore 
from a submarine on to the Spanish mainland. It was staged to give 
the appearance of being the result of an air crash, and it was virtually 
certain that such papers would find their way into the hands of 
German agents. Though this plan did not deceive Mussolini, it 
certainly induced Hitler not only to reinforce the Balkans but also 
to pay less attention to the defence of Sicily than he might have 
done.* Exercises to test the adequacy of the planning and to accus- 
tom troops in the use of assault craft were carried out in Egypt to 
focus attention upon Greece as the probable target. Transports and 
supply ships were assembled at bases in Great Britain, the United 
States, and North Africa, widely enough separated to disguise the 
true objective. As the time ripened for the assault, the convoys 
carrying the invasion forces from these distant bases were brought 
without loss across the oceans, their arrivals timed to fall exactly 
together in order to achieve that measure of local surprise which in 
all seaborne invasions constitutes so vital a factor of success. During 


the early morning of 9th July, D-day minus i, they all converged 
in the waters south of Malta. 

Facing Admiral Cunningham, in addition to the purely naval 
side of mounting the assault, was an unknown quantity of im- 
pressive importance, the possible reaction of the main fleet of Italy. 
All experience of naval operations in the Mediterranean so far had 
shown an Italy reluctant to employ her fleet offensively, even in 
view of the self-evident failure of her alternative policy of reliance 
on light craft, submarines, and aircraft. This new operation, how- 
ever, was something different, something far more vital to the whole 
existence of the country. Sicily was a bastion of the European for- 
tress, its successful defence a pre-requisite of immunity from attack 
on the mainland itself. There was but one course of action open to 
Italy, the concentration of her naval power to force a conclusion 
with the assaulting armada. Failure to do so would permit the tide 
of attack to roll on with gathering strength until the whole of Italy 
herself was engulfed. 

To counter this possibility, Force H was augmented to six 
battleships, two carriers, six cruisers, and twenty-four destroyers, 
and sailed under the command of Vice-Admiral Willis to cover the 
landings. The main fleet of Italy remained passively in port. Force 
H, not unexpectedly, attracted the attention of U-boats and aircraft, 
and both the carrier Indomitable and the cruiser Cleopatra were 
damaged by torpedoes. But it was not too heavy a price to pay for 
the immobility of the Italian battleships and cruisers, for it was on 
their absence from the field of battle that the success of the invasion 
hinged. With a determined attack they might have had it in their 
power to break up the assault; instead, they let the chance go by 
default and in doing so sealed their own ultimate fate. 

During the afternoon of 9th July the weather began to break. 
There had been a succession of fine, hot days with an unruffled sea, 
promising perfect weather for the operation. But now, with the 
convoys approaching Sicily and the landing-craft with the assault 
troops on board already at sea, a freshening north-west wind began 
to raise a short and choppy sea. In such conditions an assault 
landing over the beaches was certain to be difficult, but the opera- 


tion now was too far advanced to permit of postponement. It was 
realised that the heavy seas would not only slow the landing-craft 
down but also drive them down to leeward, but any difficulties in 
navigation should be easily overcome through the presence off 
Sicily of four submarines the Unruffled, Unseen, Unison, and 
Unrivalled which had been sent out in advance to lay navigational 
buoys off the beaches and themselves to act as markers for the 
assault shipping. 

The landings were made in two sectors British troops on the 
beaches around the south-east corner of the island, United States 
troops on beaches farther to the west. Shortly after 2.30 a.m. on the 
morning of the loth the first landing-craft touched down on the 
British beaches and the men scrambled ashore. They were no more 
than twenty minutes late on the planned time, a triumph of sea- 
manship in view of the unexpectedly heavy sea which had not only 
slowed them down but had also added materially to the difficulties 
of navigation in the unwieldy craft. 

Lying out beyond the assault craft, the monitor Erebus, the 
cruisers Uganda, Mauritius, and Carlisle, and the destroyers Eskimo, 
Nubian, and Tartar supported the troops with their guns, engaging 
the fixed batteries ashore. Under their accurate fire the opposition 
to the landings was slight and the troops gained a substantial foot- 
hold without undue difficulty. Within a few minutes of the first 
landing the success signal was seen by the ships lying off, to be 
followed by others as each beach was consolidated. By the end of 
an hour all the beaches in the eastern sector had reported a successful 
landing 4 and the invasion was off to a flying start. 

Farther to the west the United States landings were in some cases 
meeting with rather more opposition* At a few of the beaches the 
men were put ashore almost unopposed, enabling the assault troops 
to capture their initial objectives ahead of schedule. At others they 
had to fight their way ashore against determined resistance. Here, 
as the sun rose to light up the scene, American cruisers were en- 
abled to close the beaches and to bring their guns into action to 
hold, and break up, the enemy's counter-attacks. In one case they 
were employed against German tanks with devastating effect. 


As the hours of D-day passed, it became possible to recognise 
all the symptoms of success. The armies had been put ashore almost 
exactly as planned, every beach was securely held, and excellent 
progress was being made inland as the advancing troops linked up 
on their objectives. A fine start, too, had been made with the un- 
loading across the beaches of the essential supplies to maintain the 
troops ashore, still with little or no reaction from the enemy. Such 
opposition as there was came only from the German forces in the 
island; that of the Italians was obviously half-hearted. It was a most 
encouraging sign. 

By nth July, twenty-four hours after the initial landings, the 
whole south-eastern corner of Sicily was firmly in Allied hands, and 
the main part of the Navy's task in the operation was over. It was 
for the ships now to serve the needs of the Army, supporting them 
by shore bombardment as required,* sustaining them by the landing 
of reinforcements and supplies, and making small-scale amphibious 
assaults behind the enemy's lines when necessary to maintain the 
speed of the land advance. This last requirement, it is true, was only 
carried out by the Americans in their sector, and by its use and its 
success they proved that they had little to learn in the correct use 
of sea power. In his report of the operation Admiral Cunningham 
drew attention to the value of these United States amphibious 
tactics and regretted that the British 8th Army had no occasion 
to make use of this priceless asset of sea power and flexibility of 
manoeuvre. 5 In his opinion it might have saved much time and 
much costly fighting. 

Operation "Husky" came to a triumphant end on lyth August 
when the British and United States armies met in Messina after a 
campaign that had lasted no more than thirty-eight days. The gain 
was a very real one, more, in fact, than the successful conquest 
of an important bastion of the European mainland. Its occupation 
reduced considerably the threat to Mediterranean convoys from the 

* On one of these occasions the twenty-eight-year-old battleship Warspite^ in 
order to reach the bombarding position, made a good 23 J knots with paravanes 
streamed over a period of five hours. Admiral Cunningham signalled: "Operation 
well carried out. There is no question that when the old lady lifts her skirts, she 
can run." 


air and altogether freed them from the chance of surface attack. 
At the same time it effectively cut all Italian coastal traffic between 
the east and west coasts, for the Straits of Messina, through which 
it had to pass, was now dominated by Allied guns. The naval base 
at Reggio, opposite Messina, was rendered untenable, while those 
at Taranto, Brindisi, and Trieste now had no communication by 
sea with those at Naples and Genoa. 

For Italy the Allied conquest of Sicily spelt disaster. Her whole 
system of naval defence now lay shattered and in ruins; her will to 
fight, ahready tested almost to extinction by the military collapse in 
Tunisia in May, crumbled away in this new defeat in July and 
August. On 25th July, with the fighting in Sicily still in progress, 
Mussolini was deposed. On the 26th the Fascist party was dissolved. 
The end, for Italy, was in sight even before the triumphant Allies 
stood in Messina and gazed across the narrow straits at the Italian 
shore, no more than 4,000 yards away. 

This capture of Sicily from the sea stands out as an example of 
the value of maritime power in enabling an attack to be launched 
on the perimeter of a hostile territory. The experience gained at sea 
in this tremendous operation was to stand the naval planners in good 
stead when, less than a year later, it was to be repeated in an even 
greater assault on the European coastline. The lessons of "Torch" 
were used to good purpose in the mounting of "Husky", and 
"Husky" was to prove the model for "Overlord". 

"Of the navies", wrote Admiral Cunningham in his report on 
the invasion, 6 "I can only say that I never wish to command better, 
and I count it a great honour that through the person of Vice- 
Admiral Hewitt [U.S.N.] I was privileged to command so large 
and efficient a force of the United States Navy. Both the Western 
Task Force, under Admiral Hewitt, and the Eastern Task Force, 
under Admiral Ramsay, performed their unaccustomed tasks in a 
manner befitting the highest traditions of any fighting Service." 

As the guns in Sicily fell silent with the victory, the Prime 
Minister and the President of the United States were again meeting 
in conference, this time at Quebec. Their meeting was given the 
code-name "Quadrant", and its purpose was to evolve a full 


(Above) Mulberry Harbour. A "Phoenix", designed to form the outer break- 
water, being towed across Channel shortly after D-day. 

(Below) One of the supporting gun vessels during the victorious attack across the 
Schelde on Walcheren. She has been hit and is sinking, and her crew can be seen 
about to abandon ship. 

(Photographs: Imperial War Museum.) 

(Above) The Atlantic victory. A German U-boat, U.541, with the White Ensign 
flying above the Nazi naval flag, comes in to surrender. 

(Below) A Japanese suicide aircraft attacks H.M.S. Formidable. Aircraft in the 
after deck park are burning furiously. The carrier was operational again within 
four hours. 

(Photographs: Imperial War Museum,) 

offensive strategy in Europe and a limited offensive strategy against 
Japan. 7 

The two statesmen met in an atmosphere rich with promise. As 
they studied the situation maps of the European campaign they 
could mark the turning of the tide and its encouraging flow in the 
Allied favour. The maps showed them a North African coastline 
from which the enemy had been completely eliminated, a Malta 
freed at last from the Axis siege, a Sicily firmly in Allied hands, an 
Italy which had discarded its dictator and was palpably on the brink 
of surrender. Farther east the maps showed a Russia fiilly recovered 
from the initial shocks of the German assault and growing massively 
in power. There, too, the wind of victory was beginning to blow, 
faintly as yet but with promise of developing into a gale. 

But it was at the Atlantic map that the two statesmen could look 
with the greatest satisfaction, for it was there that the decisive 
victory had been won. For the first time since 1940 the Western 
Allies could justifiably feel themselves masters of that ocean, and 
in that mastery lay the key to the future operations now to be put 
into force. The mounting toll of U-boat losses, the dwindling ton- 
nage of merchant shipping sunk, and the still growing strength of 
the sea and air escorts promised a safe and sure foundation on which 
to build the edifice of final victory in the West. 

Encouraging as were all these signs, no one in Quebec in August 
1943 had any illusions as to the task which still faced the Allies* 
Somehow, somewhere, and at not too distant a date, British and 
American soldiers, backed with all the power of modern weapons, 
would have to clamber out of the sea upon the mainland of western 
Europe. The build-up across the sea, both in men and material, would 
have to be faster and more powerful than the German capacity to 
reinforce across the land. The assault phase of Operation "Husky" 
gave proof that such an operation was technically and materially 
possible, but with the added experience gained from the raid on 
Dieppe almost exactly a year previously the British Chiefs of Staff 
now made it a condition of the proposed assault that the operation 
must be capable of being sustained for at least three weeks without 
the use of a great port. 8 It was on that basis that continued planning 


was agreed. When one looks back now in the full light of actual 
performance, the accuracy of the British condition is uncanny. 
Cherbourg, the first major port to fall into Allied hands, was 
captured exactly twenty-one days after the launching of the assault. 

The "Quadrant" Conference fixed the target date for the pro- 
posed landing, to which was given the code name "Overlord", as 
ist May, 1944; and at the same time approved an outline plan 
drawn up by Lieutenant-General F. E. Morgan, who had already 
been appointed as Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander 
(designate) for the assault. General Morgan was authorised to pro- 
ceed with the detailed planning and to make full preparations for 
launching the greatest amphibious operation of all time. 

The Combined Chiefs of Staff also laid down at the "Quadrant" 
Conference the strategy to be followed in the Mediterranean. Its 
main function, after the elimination of Italy as an Axis partner, was 
to tie down as many German divisions as possible in that theatre in 
order to give a relatively greater chance of success to the more vital 
operation across the Channel. The military requirements in the 
Mediterranean set out by the Combined Chiefs of Staff were: 

1. The elimination of Italy as a belligerent. 

2. The seizure of Sardinia and Corsica. 

3. The maintenance of unremitting pressure on German forces in 
northern Italy. 

4. Offensive operations in southern France against the enemy 
with the object of creating a diversion in support of "Over- 

In this link between "Overlord" and the proposed Mediterranean 
operations the Combined Chiefs of Staff made clear their blueprint 
for victory in the West. Within its framework the task of the Navy 
was plain. It was to retain and consolidate the command of the 
oceans so hardly won from the enemy, to use that command to 
transport across the seas the men and the weapons required for the 
assaults, to put them ashore in their assaulting positions, and to 
support and maintain them there until the foothold was won and 
consolidated. This, indeed, was but the traditional task of maritime 


power, the age-old means by which Britain had so often won her 
wars in the past. 

The implications of the Combined Chiefs of Staff's directive 
regarding Mediterranean strategy were not difficult to appreciate. 
Sicily was but a stepping-stone to the first of their requirements, the 
unlatching of the door which led to the Italian mainland. Nor was 
that unlatched door left long before being forced open. On the 
morning of 2nd September a heavy naval bombardment of enemy 
positions south of Reggio was the herald of a military barrage 
fired across the Straits of Messina before dawn on the 3rd. Beneath 
its cover a host of landing and other craft of the Royal Navy 
crossed the Straits, touching down on the beaches between Reggio 
and Catona and landing units of the British 8th Army on the Italian 
mainland. There was no opposition and no casualties, for the 
Italians were too dispirited to fight and the Germans were already 
pulling out towards the north. 

While the 8th Army was making this first lodgement in the "toe" 
of Italy, plans for a more ambitious project were already far ad- 
vanced. The unexpectedly rapid progress of the Sicilian campaign 
had, during its course, given some promise to a belief that an 
opportunity was being created to strike a really damaging blow 
while the enemy was still disorganised from defeat. 9 This was the 
moment, wrote General Marshall, Chief of Staff of the American , 
Army, on i8th July, "for bold action and justifiable risks", an 
opinion with which the British Chiefs of Staff were in cordial 
agreement. 10 

The prize at which the Mediterranean planners now aimed was 
the port of Naples, some 150 miles ahead of the initial 8th Army 
landing near Reggio. To the operation was given the code name 
"Avalanche", and the interval between its first conception and its 
execution was no more than seven weeks. The assault landing was 
to be made by the United States 5th Army, commanded by 
General Mark Clark and comprising one British and one American 
corps. Joint British and United States naval forces were under the 
direct command of Vice-Admiral Hewitt, U.S.N., while the essen- 
tial air cover over the beaches was to be provided by Royal Ak 


Force and American fighters operating from Sicilian airfields, 
temporarily augmented, until the capture of an airfield ashore, by 
naval fighters from the carriers Unicorn, Battler, Attacker, Hunter, 
and Stalker, sent out from Britain to reinforce the Mediterranean 
Fleet for this operation. 

Some thirty miles south of Naples lies the small port of Salerno, 
once the capital city of the Lombard princes and the scene of their 
many battles against the Saracen invaders. In its day it had been 
sacked by Charlemagne, had fallen before the siege catapults of 
Robert Guiscard, had finally been burned to the ground by the 
Emperor Henry VI. That had been 750 years ago, and since then 
the little town had dwelt in peace, its importance as a port declining 
as that of Naples grew. Now, once more, it was to be thrust into 
the arena of war. 

The choice of Salerno as the scene of assault was based on three 
factors: that its beaches were good, that there were no strong, 
fixed coast defences, and that it was the nearest point to Naples 
within reach of fighters based on Sicily. A disadvantage was a 
mountainous bottleneck north of the town on the road to Naples, 
but that was held not to outweigh its other military attractions. 
There was one more drawback, not perhaps appreciated to the 
extent to which it might have been, in that the advantages of Salerno 
as an assault area were every bit as apparent to the enemy as to the 
Allies. They, too, could appreciate the value of Naples and work 
out the maximum range of Allied fighters operating from Sicilian 
airfields. They carried out an anti-invasion exercise on those very 
beaches a few days before the Allied assault. 

In preparation for the assault the submarine Shakespeare was 
sent to patrol off Salerno with the task of carrying out beach 
reconnaissance and of plotting the position of enemy minefields 
reported in the area. The information she gained was of the greatest 
importance to the assault forces. As they neared the shore just before 
midnight on 8th September she acted as a beacon to guide them in 
and steered them clear of the minefields. Most of the convoys in- 
volved in the operation had been sighted from the air during their 
approach and heavily attacked, but of the 700 ships engaged no 


more than one was sunk. There had been a time, and not so long 
since, when the Luftwaffe dominated the Mediterranean skies, when 
its planes wreaked havoc among warships and merchant ships 
alike. On this occasion it was strangely ineffective although, as 
events were to develop, it still had one strong card to play. 

As was the case in Operation "Husky", Force H stood by to 
prevent any interference by the Italian Fleet. The carrier force 
under the command of Rear-Admiral Vian, consisting of the 
Unicorn, Battler, Attacker , Hunter, and Stalker, lay off well to sea- 
ward to augment the air cover over the beaches during the early 
stages of the assault. In the original planning it had been expected 
that the capture of an airfield ashore at Montecorvino would allow 
shore-based fighters to take over this duty after the first two days, 
but the bitter German opposition held up its early capture and 
Admiral Vian's carriers had to remain. 

The assault craft, on their way in to the beaches during the early 
hours of the 9th September, met with a mixed reception. The 
British landing on the northern beaches, closely supported by 
heavy gunfire from the sea, was achieved without undue loss. On 
the southern beaches the Americans decided to dispense with such gun 
support and their landing was fiercely opposed. They had great 
difficulty in establishing themselves ashore, a difficulty which was 
exacerbated by a failure to get the follow-up supplies quickly off 
the beaches and into the hands of the fighting men. By the end of 
the day, however, the northern beachhead was securely held, 
although one main objective, the Montecorvino airfield, had not 
yet been taken. In the American sector the situation was less secure. 

The need for Force H soon disappeared. Italy, with her morale 
gone and her country in a state bordering on chaos, was known to 
be on the brink of defeat even before the first landing on the main- 
land at Reggio. On that day, 3rd September, she asked for terms of 
surrender; on the 8th it was announced that an armistice had been 
signed. With its signature her fleet was no longer hostile, and the 
removal of that threat made it possible to withdraw the heavy ships 
of Force H to Malta, from where they could very soon be recalled 
if required to support the men ashore with heavy gunfire. 


For four days the grim fighting ashore continued with little 
change in the situation, the ships in Salerno Bay doing what they 
could to support their comrades on the beaches. But the enemy was 
bringing up reserves, and on the evening of i3th September 
launched a powerful counter-offensive down the dividing line 
between the British and American sectors. Aided by a strong force 
of armour, they broke through to the coastal strip and the situation 
ashore became one of crisis. Admiral Hewitt signalled to Admiral 
Cunningham, appealing for more naval support. The response was 
swift and effective. The cruisers Euryalus, Scylla, and Charybdis 
were ordered to Tripoli to embark additional troops and transport 
them to Salerno at maximum speed. The Warspite and Valiant from 
Force H were ordered back into the assault area to add the might of 
their 1 5-inch guns to the naval bombardment, and Admiral Cunning- 
ham offered to send in addition the Nelson and Rodney, each with 
nine 1 6-inch guns, should they be needed. The cruisers Aurora, 
Penelope, Mauritius, and Orion were also made available for shore 
bombardment. At the same time the Allied air forces redoubled 
their efforts to seal off the attack by heavy bombing of the 
German lines of communication. 

For two days the crisis at Salerno continued, the troops ashore 
holding on precariously to their narrowing foothold. But the 
growing might of the naval bombardment as more and more ships 
went in held the enemy's penetration at bay and effectively cut his 
reinforcement route. The fire of the two battleships, lying at times 
little more than a mile offshore, was devastating in its accuracy. By 
nightfall on the i6th it was not only evident that the enemy had shot 
his bolt but also that the whole operation was going to prove a 

On that day patrols of the 5th Army, probing south from Salerno, 
made contact with those of the 8th Army moving north from 
Reggio. The whole length of that coastline was now under Allied 
control and the Salerno beachhead had been relieved. A few days 
later the great port of Naples was safely gathered in. 

For a time Operation "Avalanche*' had been touch and go, but 
its ultimate success amply justified all the risks which had been taken. 


When it is considered how great were the difficulties in planning so 
massive an assault within the short time available, and how stubborn 
and skilful the German resistance, it can be appreciated that a great 
prize was won at a cost which, though heavy for the Army, was 
comparatively light for the Navy and almost negligible for the Air 
Force. "Once again", wrote Admiral Hewitt, "the decisive factor 
was the application of sea power supplemented by air power. Under 
the gruelling fire of long-range naval guns the German penetration 
was sealed off, and on the i6th the surviving German elements 
withdrew/' 11 

The most serious naval losses were caused by a new air weapon 
which the enemy used for the first time at Salerno. It was a winged 
bomb, controlled by radio from an attendant aircraft. The American 
cruiser Savannah was hit and severely damaged by one of these 
bombs on the nth, and two days later H.M.S. Uganda shared her 
fate and had to be towed back to Malta. On the i6th, in the course 
of her bombardment of enemy positions ashore, the Warspite was 
attacked by three of these radio-controlled bombs simultaneously. 
Two were near-misses,, but the third penetrated her decks and burst 
in a boiler room. The damage was extensive, and shortly after the 
explosion she found herself with all steam cut off and some 5,000 
tons of water on board. Although nearly unmanageable, she even- 
tually reached Malta three days later under the tow of four tugs. 

Great as was the achievement at Salerno, an even greater, and 
infinitely more dramatic one had taken place almost at the s^me 
moment as the first landing-craft touched down on the beaches 
there. The surrender of Italy on 8th September meant also the 
surrender of her fleet. The bulk of it lay at Spezia, with a second 
force at Taranto and units at Genoa and Trieste. In accordance with 
the terms of the armistice the squadron at Spezia, consisting of the 
battleships Roma, Italia, and Vittorio Veneto^ six cruisers, and eight 
destroyers, left harbour in the early morning of the 9th, bound for 
Allied waters. They were ordered to proceed to the westward of 
Corsica and then alter course to the southward for the coast of 
Africa, where they would be met by Allied warships. 

Shortly after midday they had reached the point at which they 


were to alter course. Out of the afternoon sky swooped a flight of 
German aircraft armed with their new radio-controlled bombs. The 
Italia was hit and damaged, but not so severely as to bring her to a 
stop, and she continued on her course to the southward. The Roma, 
too, was hit, and in her case the wound was mortal. She was set on 
fire and sank twenty minutes later with heavy loss of life, including 
that of Admiral Bergamini, the Commander-in-Chief. One cruiser, 
the Regolo, and six destroyers remained behind to pick up survivors, 
and then proceeded independently to the Balearic Islands where 
they gave themselves up to the Spanish authorities for internment. 
The remaining ships steamed south towards Africa and were later 
met by British warships which escorted them to Malta. Admiral 
Cunningham, flying his Union flag as an Admiral of the Fleet in the 
destroyer Hamlledon, was at sea to witness their arrival off the 
African coast. 

From Taranto, direct to Malta, came the two older battleships, 
Andrea Doria and Colo Didlio, two cruisers, and one destroyer. The 
G>mmander-in-Chief reached Malta in time to accept the full sur- 
render; to realise in this dramatic occasion the triumphant culmina- 
tion of all Ms patient toil and inspired leadership in these historic 
waters. One can, perhaps, sense the feeling of pride with which, on 
nth September, he composed his famous signal to the Secretary of 
the Admiralty: "Be pleased to inform Their Lordships that the 
Italian Battle Fleet now lies at anchor under the guns of the fortress 
of Malta." 1 * 

It was the traditional naval phraseology, but behind the laconic 
wording lay three years of courage, devotion, and endeavour, and 
one more justification of the age-old national belief that salvation 
and success in war can be founded only upon the rock of maritime 

The surrender of the Italian Fleet, although it removed at one 
blow the major naval adversary in the Mediterranean, by no means 
meant the end of naval operations in those waters. German U-boats 
were still at large and there were a number of minor German war- 
ships to threaten Allied movements. There were still many small- 
scale actions to be fought in the Adriatic and in the waters around 


Greece and the Dodecanese Islands where enemy posts still held 
out. There were a number of small amphibious assaults to be carried 
out on both coasts of Italy, all of them designed to speed the ad- 
vance of the Allied armies and air forces up the Italian mainland. 
And still in the future lay the two major assaults from the sea in 1944, 
at Anzio in January and in the south of France in August, both of 
them following very much the same pattern as the successful 
landing at Salerno. With it all there remained the burden of sea- 
borne supply to the armies and air forces ashore, their tanks and 
guns and ammunition, their food and clothing and essential stores. 
All these tasks, and others like them, were part of the Navy's 
fundamental duty, a natural corollary of the control of the Medi- 
terranean seaways, so hardly secured in battle. 

It was in this way that the Mediterranean war was finally won. 
The pattern of that victory ran true to form, guided by an overall 
strategy hallowed by three centuries of experience. As in past wars, 
so in this, with the power exercised upon the seas producing those 
conditions in which the final, vital blows could be struck on land. 
It had cost many bitter battles, many losses, many anxious moments 
of stress, before control of the Mediterranean had been won, but 
the winning of it gave to the Navy the ability to carry the armies 
and the air forces to their battlefields and to sustain them through- 
out the brunt of their actions. It was, as ever in the history of war, 
the forces based upon land whose task it was. to drive home those 
last, devastating blows upon the enemy that alone could win the 
final victory. It was the mastery of the seas, with the flexibility in 
attack which it brought in its train, that gave to the land forces the 
opportunity to win their battles. 

The campaign in the Mediterranean made many naval reputations. 
Admiral Somerville will be remembered for his inspired handling 
of Force H, Admiral Vian for his brilliant action in driving off the 
Italian Fleet at the Battle of Sirte when it had his Malta convoy at 
its mercy, Admiral Troubridge and Admiral McGrigor for their 
sterling work in the Sicily landings, Commodore Oliver for his 
brilliant handling of the crisis at Salerno, Captains Agnew, Mack, 
and Stokes in their sturdy attacks against Rommel's convoys in the 


dark days of 1941 and 1942, the naval pilots at Taranto and Malta, the 
destroyer and the submarine captains whose endless endeavours 
contributed so much to the victory. There were a host of others. 
And though he made his greatest claim to fame in Home waters, 
one remembers, too, Admiral Ramsay and his meticulous planning 
for the invasions of North Africa and Sicily. 

But above them all stands the figure of the great Commander-in- 
Chief, Admiral Cunningham, whose inspired leadership never 
failed to sustain the spirit of victory in the men he so ably led. To 
his relentless tenacity in holding the eastern Mediterranean through- 
out those pregnant months when defeat was staring us in the face, to 
his unfailing grasp of the essential meaning of maritime power, to 
his courage in adversity and his brilliance in victory, was due the 
ultimate triumph of the Mediterranean Fleet. 

At the height of his fame he was called home from the Mediter- 
ranean, the scene of his great triumph. Other, more important, work 
was awaiting him, for in London the First Sea Lord lay dying. 


Chapter 13 


EARLY in October 1943 the resignation on account of ill 
health of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound as First 
Sea Lord was announced. He died on Trafalgar Day, less 
than three weeks later, worn out by the heavy burden he had car- 
ried for over four years. If, on rare occasions, his judgment had 
been at fault, if he had been, perhaps, too prone to intervene from 
his Admiralty office in the conduct of operations at sea, yet through- 
out those long, critical years he had steered the Navy faithfully 
through the shoals of war. When the shadow of death compelled 
him to relinquish the helm he could see a Navy that had weathered 
the earlier storms of adversity and could take comfort in the 
knowledge that it was now set fair upon the course to victory. 

To succeed him as First Sea Lord came Admiral of the Fleet 
Sir Andrew Cunningham. His work in the Mediterranean was done 
and his energies were now to be directed to the solution of the 
naval problems of a wider sphere. Among the many preoccupations 
which faced him in his new office two were outstanding. The first 
was the continuing preparation for the forthcoming invasion of 
north-west Europe, the other was the naval contribution to be made 
in the Pacific in the war against Japan. 1 

The elimination of the Italian Fleet in the Mediterranean in the 
summer of 1943 had permitted the reinforcement of Admiral 
Somerville's fleet in the East Indies, but Admiral Cunningham 
wanted more than this. The brunt of the naval war was being 


borne in the Pacific, and it was towards that ocean that the new 
First Sea Lord was now looking. His desire was to see a British 
Fleet in action there alongside the ships of the United States, and 
taking a share in what had been so far largely an American theatre 
of operations. It was a desire that, at first, commanded little support. 
There was an influential body of naval opinion in the United States, 
led by Admiral King, the American Chief of Naval Operations, 
which was distinctly hostile to any appearance of a British Fleet in 
Pacific waters, and Admiral Cunningham's first task was to remove 
that prejudice so far as possible. Such a fleet could not, of course, 
be assembled in the Pacific until the verdict in Europe was beyond 
all possible doubt, but Admiral Cunningham was determined, if it 
lay within his power, to see British warships in action there. 2 

More immediate, however, and therefore more pressing, was the 
forthcoming Operation "Overlord", now reaching the stage where 
it was taxing the ingenuity and skill of planners of all three Services. 
One of Admiral Cunningham's first duties was to recommend to the 
Prime Minister and to the Combined Chiefs of Staff an officer for 
the position of Naval Allied Commander-in-Chief for the invasion. 
His choice was virtually automatic; one name stood out above all 
others. Admiral Ramsay's brilliance at this type of work had been 
startlingly apparent in the North Africa and Sicilian assaults, and all 
were agreed, United States leaders as well as British, that there 
was no man better qualified for the task. There was, too, something 
of poetic justice in the appointment. In the dark days of 1940 it 
had been Admiral Ramsay who had planned' and carried out 
Operation "Dynamo", the evacuation of the British Expeditionary 
Force from the shores of France around Dunkirk. Now he was to 
plan to put an invasion force back into France and in so doing to 
see the wheel turn full circle. 

Operation "Overlord" depended for its success upon many 
essential pre-requisites, all of them bound up in the overall strategic 
plan* Its ramifications stretched far beyond die particular area cif die 
Channel where it was to be staged. They reached east to Russia and 
south to Italy, where heavy fighting on both these fronts absorbed 
so much of the German military strength. They reached to central 


Germany, where the combined bomber offensive of the Royal Air 
Force and the United States Army Air Force was draining off a 
large proportion of the enemy's fighter strength. They reached, too, 
across the Atlantic to Canada and America, from where came many 
of the men and the munitions with which the assault was to be 
made. Finally, for an instant or two, they reached up into the 
Arctic, where a latent threat to the Atlantic shipping called for naval 

It is not easy to pick on any one of these essential pre-requisites 
as of more vital importance than any other, though they all depended 
in the ultimate analysis on domination at sea. By the end of 1943 this 
domination was virtually absolute and, as the year drew to its close, 
the Navy had many good reasons for rejoicing. 

As already described, the German battle-cruiser Scharnhorst had 
been sunk in the Arctic on 26th December by the guns and torpe- 
does of the Home Fleet. Two days later another, though smaller, 
action gave equal cause for satisfaction. A German blockade runner, 
the Alsterufer, had been intercepted by the Royal Air Force while 
approaching the Bay of Biscay and had been sunk by bombs. 
Already at sea in the Bay was a strong force of German destroyers 
which had been sent out to escort her in. Also at sea in the Bay 
were the British cruisers Glasgow and Enterprise, the latter Canadian 
manned. They were ordered by the Commander-in-Chief, Ply- 
mouth, to intercept, and shortly after noon on the 28th the enemy 
were sighted from the Glasgow's bridge. There were ten all told, 
and four of them were the big Narvik-class destroyers of 2,400 tons. 
There was a heavy sea running in the Bay, and the sky was grey 
and overcast. 

Boldly handled, these ten destroyers should have had the two 
British cruisers at their mercy. But instead of going in to the attack 
they tried to escape at full speed to the south-eastward, and in the 
long-range, running fight which developed some of them were hit 
and damaged. Finally, to split the gunfire of the cruisers, they 
divided into two forces, six of them continuing their south-easterly 
course, the remaining four trying to double round to the north- 
west. The Glasgow and Enterprise turned westward in pursuit of the 


latter group and sank three of them before they were lost to sight 
in the winter darkness. 

The action, in the general pattern of the war at sea, was relatively 
unimportant except in one interesting aspect. It reinforced vividly 
an impression that was gaining ground, that the German will to 
fight at sea was declining. It had first become apparent as early as 
November, 1939, when the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, after sinking 
the Rawalpindi, had run from the cruiser Newcastle. In April, 1940, 
they had done the same thing when they encountered the Renown 
off the Norwegian coast. Even the Bismarck and Prin% Eugen^ 
in May, 1941, had run from the Prince of Wales when they could 
have had her at their mercy. It was equally apparent, too, in the 
Arctic at the end of 1942 when the Hipper and Liit^pw^ during their 
attempt to attack Convoy JW 556, had allowed themselves to be 
driven off by a much weaker force of destroyers and cruisers. It was 
also noticeable in the Atlantic that, after their heavy defeat in May 
and June of 1943, the U-boats were becoming more reluctant to 
press home their attacks against the convoys. And now this action 
in the Bay of Biscay was telling the same tale. There appeared to be 
more in it than pure coincidence, and as a result it was not surprising 
that the New Year of 1944 found the Navy in optimistic mood. 

The sinking of the Scharnhorst and the successful action by the 
Glasgow and Enterprise were both encouraging, but of far deeper 
significance was the continuing ascendancy over the U-boats in the 
Atlantic. During the third quarter of 1943 no fewer than 71 of them 
had been destroyed; in the fourth 53 had been sent to the bottom, 
to bring the total for 1943 up to 237. This was a rate of loss that 
no Navy could afford without a serious drop in morale, and by the 
end of the year Doenitz, under the smart of this defeat, was forced 
to withdraw the U-boats from their Atlantic hunting-grounds. The 
other side of the picture was, if possible, even more encouraging, 
for during the last three months of the year only three British 
merchant ships, totalling less than 15,000 tons, had been sunk in the 
North Atlantic. And of these three ships the U-boats could claim 
only two, and one of those was lost through hitting a U-boat-laid 
mine off the Canadian coast. 


The battle against the U-boats had been intensified by every 
possible means throughout 1943. While the main killing areas were 
always around the convoys, a useful addition to the total was made 
by Coastal Command aircraft operating across the U-boat transit 
routes from their Bay of Biscay bases to their Atlantic operating 
areas. This transit route was considered by the Chiefs of Staff as the 
"trunk" of the Atlantic menace, its roots lying in the Biscay ports 
and its branches spreading far and wide, to the North Atlantic 
convoys, to the Caribbean, to the eastern seaboard of America, to 
the sea lanes along which the faster merchant ships sailed without 
escort. 3 To strike effectively at the trunk, it was thought, would 
cause the branches to wither. It was, perhaps, a part of the answer 
in that some U-boats were sunk, but it was by no means the whole 
of it. Taking the U-boat war as a whole, it remained true that, in 
terms of aircraft/hours flown and aircraft losses for each U-boat 
sunk, success in the Bay offensive was achieved only at a cost some 
ten to twelve times greater than in similar air operations around the 

Nevertheless, in the summer of 1943, three factors combined to 
give a greatly increased rate of U-boat loss in the Bay of Biscay. 
The first was a grave error of tactics by Admiral Doenitz when, 
between ist June and 3ist August, he ordered his U-boats to cross 
the Bay on the surface and fight back with their anti-aircraft weapons. 
The second was his acknowledgment of defeat around the convoys 
when, on 23rd May, he withdrew most of the U-boats from the 
Atlantic and as a result increased their density in the Bay. The third 
was some excellent forecasting of U-boat movements by the 
Submarine Tracking Room in the Admiralty. These three fectors 
gave the airmen of Coastal Command their great chance, and they 
made the most of it. 

The virtual immunity of North Atlantic shipping from sub- 
marine attack during the autumn and winter of 1943 and the early 
months of 1944 was a vital factor in the build-up for "Overlord". 
Considerable numbers of American and Canadian troops were 
coming across the Atlantic to play their part in the coming assault, 
and huge quantities of essential weapons and stores were brought 


over in the holds of merchant ships. Their uniformly successful 
arrival was a reflection of the sound basis of convoy protection 
evolved through the years of painful experience. Effective maritime 
power, exercised through its twin elements of surface and air pro- 
tection, converted each convoy into a task group with formidable 
killing capabilities, a fact which the U-boats bold enough to join 
battle with them discovered to their very great cost. The price for 
each convoyed ship sunk in the North Atlantic between September 
1943 and the eve of "Overlord", a mere twelve in all, was no less 
than six U-boats, or seventy-two in all. The true answer to the 
U-boat, which lay in combined surface and air escort and support 
to all threatened convoys, had been apparent for a long time but 
had been sadly delayed in execution by the difficulties which Coastal 
Command experienced in obtaining sufficient very-long-range 
maritime aircraft. These difficulties had, however, been overcome 
by May 1943, though not entirely by adequate numbers so much 
as by working the available aircraft and their crews to the limit of 
their capacity. 

The Atlantic victory was fundamental to "Overlord", and with- 
out it the invasion of north-west Europe could never have been 
mounted. The whole success of "Overlord" depended on the ability 
of the Allies to maintain unchecked the flow of men and materials 
from Canada and the United States, both for the initial assault and 
for the subsequent build-up of the forces engaged. American wishes 
to invade in 1942 when they agreed that they would be unable to 
contribute men, supplies, or shipping to the venture and again in 
1943, an operation much in their minds and one which they pressed 
strongly with the British Chiefs of Staff, failed to take fully into 
account the North Atlantic situation. It is perhaps a long cry from 
the Atlantic convoys to the beaches of Normandy, but without the 
security of the first, success on the second would have been im- 
possible. It is not always recognised how closely the two were 
bound together and that it was the long, hard, and tireless work of 
the escort crews, both surface and air, that really gained the key to 
the continental door. 

Operations in the Arctic, too, played their part. Early in 1944 


it became known in the Admiralty that repairs to the Tirpit[, 
damaged in the midget submarine attack of the previous September, 
were approaching completion. It was not considered likely that the 
enemy would use her operationally against the Russian convoys, 
but there was a possibility that she might return to Germany, be 
refitted there, and sent out as a last, desperate gamble to harry the 
Atlantic shipping. 4 Memories of the Bismarck and the trouble she 
had caused made it advisable to try to damage the Tirpit% once 

She still lay up in the north of Norway in Kaa Fjord, her berth 
strongly protected by anti-submarine nets, by anti-aircraft guns on 
board and also mounted in the surrounding hills, by flak ships 
moored in the fjord, and by smoke-generating apparatus. She was 
beyond the range of heavy bombers based in Britain, and attempts 
by the Royal Air Force to hit her from temporary bases set up in 
north Russia were failures. The task was then handed over to the 
Fleet Air Arm which, with its greater flexibility, might well com- 
mand success. 

Considerable thought and training were given to the operation, a 
full-scale bombing and firing range being constructed at Loch 
Eriboll, in conditions as similar as possible to those which would be 
found in Kaa Fjord. Barracuda bombers from the Victorious and 
Furious, and Wildcat, Hellcat, and Corsair fighters from the Pursuer, 
Searcher, and Emperor, were trained energetically over this range 
throughout the weeks preceding the attack. 

In order to minimise the risk of U-boats finding and attacking 
the carriers, it was decided to synchronise the operation with the 
passage of an outward-bound convoy to north Russia, which was 
certain to draw the U-boats to the eastward of Bear Island. Such a 
convoy was due to leave on 2yth March and it was arranged to 
attack the Tirpit^ eight days later, on 4th April, by which time the 
convoy would be well into the Barents Sea, east of Bear Island, 
having taken the U-boats with it. 

The main force of carriers, accompanied by cruisers and destroy- 
ers, sailed from Scapa on 3Oth March. Two days later, so well was 
the convoy proceeding and so favourable the weather for air 


operations, the Commander-in-Chief Home Fleet advanced the 
attack by one day, altering the prearranged flying-off position to 
one closer to the Norwegian coast. By increasing to full speed the 
carrier force was able to join forces with the Home Fleet during the 
afternoon of 2nd April, and there the battleship Anson^ flying the 
flag of Vice-Admiral Moore, and the Victorious ', which had sailed 
with the Home Fleet, were detached to join the main carrier force 
for the attack. Course was set for the new flying-off position, due 
to be reached at 4.15 a.m. the following morning. This was zero 
hour for taking off. 

"By 3.0 a.m. on 3rd April it appeared that everything was in our 
favour. So far as we knew we had not been sighted, and flying 
conditions were perfect for putting the operation into effect. There 
was a light off-shore wind, and visibility was in fact so good that 
while landing on the strikes later we sighted the Norwegian coast 
at a distance of about fifty miles.'* 5 So wrote Admiral Moore in his 
official report. On board the carriers all was in readiness. The first 
strike of twenty-one Barracudas and forty-five fighters were in the 
air and formed up within twenty minutes of the first take-off. They 
flew in low over the water to avoid possible radar location, and at 
4.57 a.m. they began to climb to 10,000 feet to cross the Norwegian 
coast. Coming in across the land they altered course to the eastward 
down the snow-covered valley which led to the head of Kaa Fjord. 
There lay their target, easily distinguishable in the clear light of early 
dawn, and they swooped down on to their unsuspecting quarry 
from the south-west. 

The fighters, diving down into the cover of the hills, engaged the 
Tirpit^ and the anti-aircraft batteries with their guns and "undoubt- 
edly spoilt the Tirpiti gunnery'*. 6 They were followed down by the 
bombers, which attacked from heights of between 3,000 and 1,200 
feet. Hits were scored immediately, causing heavy explosions and 
flames, and it was quickly evident that the Tirpit^ was severely 
damaged. Exactly sixty seconds after the first bomb had fallen the 
attack was over and the aircraft were on their way back to the 
carriers. Only one Barracuda was missing; the remainder "returned 
in flight formation with a unanimous broad grin". 7 


Meanwhile, the second strike of nineteen Barracudas and forty- 
five fighters was on its way in. Although the Tirpiti was now 
surrounded by smoke, she was still easily visible from above. The 
same tactics were employed as for the first strike, and the same 
success was achieved with many hits observed. Again one Barracuda 
was shot down, the remainder all landing on successfully. By 8 a.m. 
the carriers and their covering forces were withdrawing from 
the area. 

It had indeed been a red-letter day for the Fleet Air Arm. At a 
cost of two bombers they had effectively put out of action the only 
remaining battleship in the German Fleet. She had been hit by 
fifteen bombs, her decks had been ripped up, bulkheads shattered, 
and over 300 of her crew had been killed. She could, however, still 
steam, for no bomb had been able to penetrate the lower armoured 
deck of eight-inch steel. 

Later in the year, as soon as she had been patched up, she steamed 
round the coast to Tromso, her fruitless days in the Arctic at an end. 
There she was just within range of the Royal Air Force and, on 
i2th November, Lancasters of the "dam-busters" squadrons reached 
her and sank her with six-ton bombs. By that time, of course, she 
was no longer a menace, for the invasion had been launched and in 
Europe the enemy was already on the run. 

With the North Atlantic virtually clear of U-boats and with the 
danger of the Tirpit^ making her appearance in that ocean removed 
by the bombs of the Fleet Air Arm, all was clear for "Overlord". 
Within that main operation, designed "to undertake operations 
aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed 
forces", 8 was another, known as Operation "Neptune", which was 
the naval side of "Overlord". And it was "Neptune" that now held 
the centre of the naval stage. It was to prove the most massive 
combined operation of the war, and as such its planning was equally 

It was, too, beset by difficulties from the start. In General 
Morgan's original plan the landing was to be made on a three- 
divisional front, in accordance with the maximum forces allotted to 
him by the Combined Chiefs of Staff. 9 General Eisenhower, ap- 


pointed to the post of Supreme Commander early in 1944, and 
General Montgomery, selected to command the combined British, 
Canadian, and United States armies during the initial fighting, 
both asked for an assault on a wider front. From three divisions 
assaulting from the sea the plan was stepped up to five divisions. 
The Combined Chiefs of Staff noted their agreement, 10 but failed 
to indicate the sources from which the increase in shipping and 
assault craft would come. 

This threw an added burden on the Navy, for each additional 
division required a naval assault force to put it ashore, now making 
a total of five assault forces in all. The wider front also naturally 
called for an increased number of escorts, minesweepers, and bom- 
barding ships. Some of this requirement was met by heavy drafts 
on the Atlantic convoy escorts, the Home Fleet, and the Mediter- 
ranean Fleet, as well as by holding back reinforcements destined for 
the Far Eastern Fleet, but even these could not fill the whole bill. 
Admiral King, when asked to provide American warships to fill the 
deficiency, professed himself unable to do so, and for a time the full 
operation swung in the balance. It was not until I5th April, only 
seven weeks before D-day, that Admiral King relented. Then he 
bettered the requirement and promised more ships than were 
actually needed. 

More difficult still of solution was the problem of assault craft. 
Here, again, there were differences of opinion between London and 
Washington. It was, perhaps, not easy for the United States auth- 
orities, remote from the scene of conflict and unaware of the dis- 
location that a well-placed bomb in a shipbuilding yard could cause, 
to realise the difficulties and shortages which existed in Britain. 
Admiral King's eyes, too, were wandering away from Europe. 
Although there had been ready agreement, on the grand strategical 
level, that Germany was the prime enemy and that her defeat must 
take precedence over that of Japan, it was the Pacific war which was 
now engaging all Admiral King's attention. There need, indeed, 
have been no problem in the supply of assault craft for "Neptune" 
except for the fact that almost the whole of American production in 
those vessels went straight to the Pacific. 


An effort to meet part of the deficiency was made in Britain by 
postponing for three months the completion of one fleet carrier, 
four destroyers, and fourteen anti-submarine frigates, in order that 
the manpower thus engaged might be devoted to the building of 
assault craft. But even that was not enough to fill the gap. More 
stringent remedies still were required. "Overlord" was postponed 
for a month from its initial target date of ist May in order to obtain 
the use of one more month's construction, and the complementary 
landing in the south of France was put back for three months so 
that the assault craft in the Mediterranean might be brought home 
for "Neptune". It was with the contribution made by these two 
delays that "Neptune" was at last mounted on its new and larger 
scale of assault. 

Of increasing importance as the planning developed was the 
problem of follow-up and supply. The vagaries of English Channel 
weather were well appreciated in Britain, and since the initial land- 
ings and the subsequent maintenance must necessarily be over 
beaches, the need for calm water was only too obvious. Li any 
operation of such importance as this it was manifestly impossible to 
gamble on a long, settled spell of weather; therefore steps had to be 
taken to protect, so far as was humanly possible, the landing- 
beaches from the caprices of ^Eolus, the father of the winds. 
Odysseus knew him from bitter experience as a god with whom it 
was unwise to trifle; the British planners of "Neptune" were not 
prepared to run the same risks as Odysseus. 

It was planned to provide sheltered water off the five assault 
beaches by means of an artificial breakwater composed of block- 
ships, brought across the Channel under their own steam and 
scuttled in line. These five breakwaters were known as "Goose- 
berries", the individual ships comprising them as "Corncobs". 
Two obsolete battleships, two cruisers, and fifty-five merchant ships 
were used for this purpose. Two of these "Gooseberries", one off 
the British beaches and one off the American, were then to be 
developed into artificial harbours. The "Gooseberries" were to be 
prolonged and turned shorewards by sinking prefabricated caissons 
of steel and concrete known as "Phoenix", to form two harbours 


each the size of Dover. In all, 213 caissons were required, of which 
the largest were 200 feet long, 55 feet wide, and 60 feet high. 

Inside these two harbours were floating piers, consisting of 
articulated steel roadway supported by pontoons, and with specially 
designed pierheads, anchored to the ground by four legs to keep 
them in position but free to float up and down with the tide. 
These piers could deal with all shallow-draft vessels engaged in 
supply, enabling them to be discharged at all states of the tide. For 
larger ships an extra breakwater to seaward of the harbours was 
provided, composed of heavy steel floating structures known as 
"Bombardons", cruciform in section and each 200 feet long and 25 
feet high. 

This whole assembly was known as a "Mulberry". They were 
designed and built in Britain, and in all amounted to the prodigious 
total of nearly 2,000,000 tons of concrete and steel. With the 
exception of the original "Corncobs", which proceeded under their 
own steam, each section was towed across the Channel by tugs and 
fitted together on the far shore in the manner of a jig-saw puzzle. 
It was a vast and remarkable undertaking, British both in concep- 
tion and execution, and although in the end only one of the two 
planned "Mulberries" became fully operational, it played a prodi- 
gious part in the smooth flow of men and materials needed to sus- 
tain the campaign. The second "Mulberry", constructed off" the 
American beaches, came to grief in the exceptionally heavy weather 
which followed the landings. 

The full naval plan for "Neptune" embraced some 7,000 ships 
of all types and sizes. Of these just over 1,200 were warships, rang- 
ing from battleships to midget submarines. More than 4,100 landing 
ships and craft were required to put the armies ashore, a further 735 
auxiliary ships and 864 merchant ships were needed to sustain them 
there. So great an armada required a vast detail of planning to en- 
sure exact and orderly movement of all the ships within their 
operational areas. 

"Neptune" was, above all, a combined operation of all three 
Services in which it is impossible to consider the naval side without 
reference to the equally vital tasks of the air and land forces. A great 


amount of preparatory work was done by the Royal Air Force and 
the United States Army Air Force in making the assault possible, for 
an overriding necessity of a successful invasion was complete air 
mastery over the assault area. This was achieved partly by the wearing 
down of the Luftwaffe in day and night air operations over France,the 
Low Countries, and Germany, and partly by a sustained attack on 
enemy radar posts and early warning systems. This, however, was 
not all. Another requirement for success was the Allied need to 
build up their forces on the Continent faster than the enemy could 
reinforce his, and in this, too, the air forces were to play a vital part. 
Between mid-April and the first week in June they carried out the 
"Transportation" plan, bombing rail centres, marshalling yards, 
repair shops, engine sheds, and the like. Although it was not pos- 
sible to stop all railway traffic, enough damage was done to slow it 
up very considerably. As D-day approached, this attack was broad- 
ened to include important bridges, road and rail, leading to the 
battle area. 

Another task of the airmen, in this case of Coastal Command, 
was the patrol of the south-western approaches to the Channel in 
an anti-shipping and anti-submarine role. Similar anti-shipping 
patrols were flown over the southern North Sea and anti-U-boat 
patrols over the northern exit to the Atlantic. It was an endless, day- 
after-day, night-after-night task, often unrewarding in terms of 
ships or U-boats sighted, yet it helped to keep clear the crucial 
stretch of sea over which the armies were to be carried. The German 
Admiral commanding in western Europe, Vice-Admiral Krancke, 
noted that his ships "were almost invariably attacked from the air 
as soon as they left harbour and suffered numerous hits . . . darkness 
provided no relief'*. 11 

Thus it was that the way was made safe for the launching of 
invasion. By the end of M^y everything possible in the way of 
preparation for the greatest adventure of the war had been done. 
Even the day had been selected. In compliance with Army require- 
ments for conditions of landing a date had to be chosen on which 
the tide would still have three hours of rise at the time of sunrise, 
with a good moon on the preceding night to aid the airborne troops 


in finding their objectives. Three days in June fulfilled these varied 
requirements, the 5th, 6th, and yth. On 23rd May a signal was sent 
from General Eisenhower's Headquarters to the operational Com- 
manders-in-Chief. When deciphered it read: "Exercise Hornpipe 
Bigot Halcyon Y plus four." Hornpipe meant "Overlord". Bigot 
was a code word used to express the highest degree of secrecy, 
Halcyon indicated D-day, and Y had been fixed as ist June. The 
signal thus fixed D-day as 5th June. 

With this decision made, Operation "Neptune" began to get 
into its stride. Ships waiting in the northern ports of Britain put to 
sea to start their long voyage to the shores of Normandy. They 
were the "Corncobs" to form the breakwaters and those of the 
bombarding ships which were lying at Scapa and in the Clyde. On 
2nd June two midget submarines slipped out of Portsmouth Har- 
bour to identify and lie off the narrow beaches on the other side and, 
on the morning of D-day, to act as markers for the assault convoys. 
On the 3rd the bombarding force for the American beaches sailed 
from Belfast, and the first assault convoys set out from the West 
Country ports of Dartmouth, Brixham, and Salcombe. The whole 
intricate naval plan was slipping into gear and accelerating as the 
hours before D-day dwindled. 

Out in the Channel on 3rd June the wind began to increase, 
knocking up a choppy sea. Low cloud swept across the sky, typical 
forerunner to a Channel storm. The assault convoys already at sea 
were soon making heavy weather of it and many of the soldiers on 
board were beginning to suffer from seasickness. As the day ad- 
vanced, the weather grew steadily worse and the meteorologists on 
the Supreme Commander's staff were pessimistic. That night a 
worried General Eisenhower consulted his sea, land, and air com- 
manders, but decided to delay any postponement decision until the 
following morning. The ships at sea continued their passages to- 
wards France, and more and more assault craft were manned and 
loaded and put to sea as the momentum of Operation "Neptune" 
gathered force. 

Early on the Sunday morning of 4th June General Eisenhower 
was again in conference with his commanders. The forecast made 


by the meteorologists on the preceding day was confirmed, if any- 
thing the weather would get worse still on the 5th. It could be 
ignored no longer, and D-day was postponed for twenty-four 
hours, with the prospect of a still further postponement if the 
weather experts were to be believed. 

So far advanced now was Operation "Neptune" that this post- 
ponement could not fail to cause extreme difficulty. Convoys at sea 
were recalled and directed to sheltered anchorages; warships were 
ordered to reverse course for a period but to remain at sea. By 
nightfall on the 4th every convoy, with one exception, had been 
accounted for and was either back at anchor or on the way home. 
The exception was an assault convoy of 128 tank landing-craft 
with nine escorts. It had not received the postponement signal and 
was still heading for the beaches at the base of the Cotentin Penin- 
sula, which it would reach at dawn on the morning of the 5th. It 
was finally stopped by a naval aircraft sent out from Portsmouth, 
and was ordered to return and refuel. 

All through Sunday the weather grew worse. The Admiralty 
issued a gale warning to shipping in the Irish Sea during the morn- 
ing, and outside General Eisenhower's headquarters at Portsmouth, 
when the Allied commanders met again that night, a boisterous 
wind and driving rain indicated a rough and stormy night in the 
Channel. Yet, surprisingly enough, the report of the weather 
experts was reassuring. It was forecasted that the storm would dear 
by the Monday morning and that the ensuing fair weather would 
last at least over the Tuesday. General Eisenhower decided to hold 
another meeting at four o'clock on Monday morning and, if the 
forecast were still favourable, to hold to Tuesday, 6th June, as D- 
day. But for Admiral Ramsay the decision was a more difficult one. 
To arrive at the beaches across the Channel during the early hours 
of 6th June meant that the first naval movements must start at once. 
It meant that he had to risk the weather, and as soon as he reached 
his own headquarters he gave the order for Operation "Neptune" 
to proceed. 12 

It was as well that he did so, for at the meeting on Monday 
morning the meteorologists confirmed their opinions of Sunday 


night. While the weather would be by no means ideal, it would be 
possible. At 4.30 a.m. General Eisenhower gave the order to go 
ahead and the whole force of invasion swung once more into action. 
From every port on the south coast of Britain, and from some on 
the east, a stream of ships and assault craft flowed continuously into 
the waters of the English Channel. The men on board, soldiers and 
sailors alike, were on the whole quiet and thoughtful but in good 
heart, for all doubts were now at rest. This was the great ad- 
venture for which they had been so assiduously trained. The endless 
exercises were over; and this was invasion. 

There was a disturbed sea still running in the Channel with a 
fresh wind blowing, but as the hours of 5th June passed the wind 
began to drop and the sea to moderate. Nevertheless, there was still 
a good deal of seasickness, though even this could not damp the 
ardent spirits of the men. Admiral Vian, commanding the eastern 
task force which was to support the British landings, was full of 
praise for the men. "Their spirit and seamanship", he wrote, "alike 
rose to meet the greatness of the hour, and they pressed forward in 
high heart and resolution; there was no faltering and many of the 
smaller craft were driven on until they foundered." 13 

Every possible precaution had been taken. Down to the south- 
west, squadrons of Coastal Command were on patrol to guard 
against any influx of U-boats into the assault area. Over the convoys 
flew an umbrella of fighters, while further squadrons of Coastal 
Command carried out anti-E-boat patrols. Ahead of the convoys 
were flotillas of minesweepers, clearing the approach routes for the 
assault craft and their support squadrons. 

As the ships swept on in the darkness towards their goal on the 
opposite coast of the Channel the troops on board could hear over- 
head the roar of engines of the transport aircraft, some towing the 
gliders of the airborne divisions, others laden with parachute troops 
for their drop on to objectives ashore. They were followed by a 
great fleet of heavy bombers on their way to pound the coastal 
batteries. It was a heartening sound as the small assault craft 
laboured in the acute discomfort of a heavy sea. Finally, as the first 
light of a grey dawn began to tinge the eastern horizon, two dim 


green lights were sighted ahead, marking the British beaches. The 
time was a minute or two after five o'clock. 

The green lights were shown by the midget submarines Xzo and 
X^S) which had lain submerged off the Normandy coast since their 
arrival there during the night of 3rd June. They had sailed before 
the postponement of the operation, and the endurance of their 
crews as they lay submerged in the extreme discomfort of their tiny 
craft for twenty-four hours longer than had been expected was 
beyond praise. The lights that they showed, visible only from sea- 
ward, led in the British bombarding squadrons to their allotted 
anchoring positions. 

As the dawn came up on the morning of the <5th It became pos- 
sible for the naval commanders of the assault forces to make an 
appreciation of the night's work. In the assault convoys there had 
been a few casualties because of the stress of weather, but they were 
remarkably few and in general the convoys were arriving punctually 
and accurately in their planned positions. Overhead, even at this 
early hour, a swarm of fighters gave effective air cover; others, 
unseen from the ships, ranged over northern France beyond the 
immediate target area to harass any enemy movements. The whole 
scene was a most heartening one for the assault troops, for almost 
as far as the eye could see the surface of the sea was covered with 
thousands of Allied ships and craft, while the skies above were filled 
with Allied fighters. So overwhelming a concentration of power 
could hardly fail to command success. 

Behind all the men, all the ships, and all the aircraft which formed 
the assault force on this June morning, there lay the long battle of 
the oceans, whose success alone had made possible the conditions 
of overall superiority in which they could gather in such huge 
numbers off the beaches of Normandy. Here was to be seen the 
climax of all the years of bitter fighting at sea; and here was proof 
of the ability to transfer the victory won in the oceans into its final 
decisive phase of a victory won across the land. 

Even more extraordinary, perhaps, was the fact that tactical sur- 
prise had been achieved. During the night it had seemed impossible 
that so great a concourse of ships moving towards the invasion 


beaches, their numbers running into thousands, could have escaped 
observation. Even the minesweepers, which had been at work off 
the French coast during the night, had done their task unchallenged. 
Yet there was the evidence, almost unbelievable perhaps but none 
the less true, lying before the eyes of the naval commanders as they 
looked out in the dawn over the waters. There lay the ships of the 
invasion fleet and the enemy had shown no single sign of activity. 

At 5.30 a,m. the guns of the bombarding squadrons opened 
fire on the coastal fortifications. At the same time a heavy bombing 
attack by American day bombers was directed upon the same targets. 
The coastal fringe of Normandy erupted into a sheet of flame, 
behind which the assault craft made for the shore. In the van of the 
invasion force were landing-craft carrying amphibious tanks, sup- 
port craft specially armed with naval guns ranging from 4.7-inch 
downwards, others with rockets, followed by further assault forces 
of infantry, artillery, and engineers. With them went the special 
parties of seamen and Royal Engineers whose task it was to clear 
the underwater obstructions, most of them with mines attached, 
with which the enemy had strewn the beaches. This was one of the 
reasons for stipulating a state of half-tide for the initial assault, for 
at high water these obstructions were covered and their removal 
wellnigh impossible. 

As the invasion craft neared the water's edge the rocket assault 
craft, known as "Hedgerows" and manned by Royal Marines, 
closed in. Each could fire a thousand 5 -inch rockets within the space 
of ninety seconds. In the three British sectors some 20,000 rockets 
were fired, and in the two American about 18,000. They curved 
away from the assault craft to deluge the beaches in a devastating 
burst. Destroyers, moving in close to the shore, added to the din 
of explosion with the fire of their 4.7-inch guns as they sealed the 
flanks of the landings. The first wave of landing-craft touched 
down in France and the soldiers waded ashore in the wake of the 

Wave after wave followed. There was a good deal of opposition 
at first, for the bombardment from sea and air, indescribably heavy 
as it had been, had not silenced every enemy weapon. It was not, 


however, sufficiently heavy to hold up the landing, and the re- 
maining beach defences were either overrun by the advancing 
troops or subdued by direct fire from guns already ashore or from 
supporting ships at sea. 

On the British beaches as a whole the landings were accurate and 
successful, though inevitably here and there unforeseen difficulties 
held up for a time the break-out from the beaches. Individual calls 
for supporting fire from the ships increased as the day wore on, and 
they did much to subdue those enemy strong-points which were still 
holding out against the initial assault. But as the sun rose higher in 
the sky on this morning of 6th June there was room for sober 
satisfaction on the way that all three Services, combining together 
in this massive operation, had carried through their initial tasks. 
There was, however, still a long way to go before the beachhead 
could be called secure. 

The American landings farther west were not so uniformly 
successful. On one of their two beaches they were virtually unopposed 
and the leading troops made good progress inland, though held up' 
in places by flooded fields ashore. But on the other beach there was 
considerable confusion. The assault craft bunched badly on the way 
in, the amphibious tanks were given so long a swim to the shore 
that most of them foundered before reaching the beach, and the 
troops as they landed were met with a withering fire from the 
German defenders which pinned them down among the breakers. 
Confusion was made worse by the launching of succeeding waves 
of assault craft while the first was still bunched off the beach, until 
the whole became a milling mass in which little semblance of order 
remained. Wind and tide, both strong, added to the difficulties, and 
a lack of adequate training by the assault-craft leaders led to many 
errors in navigation. 14 

Yet out of chaos, order finally emerged. With much gallantry 
small parties of American soldiers, braving the heavy fire and the 
mine-strewn beach, broke through the defence into the open 
country beyond. They were then able to work round and to silence 
the German posts and so make easier the landings of the follow- 
up troops. 


Thus it was that the great assault was made. In spite of difficult 
conditions of wind and sea some thousands of ships and craft, 
some large but many very small, had been navigated across a 
hundred miles of Channel and brought to their journey's end with 
remarkable accuracy and precision. During this first day, which 
included the breaking down of Hitler's much vaunted "Atlantic 
Wall", more than 130,000 men were landed from the sea, together 
with their equipment and stores. That was surprisingly good, but 
more surprising still was the almost complete absence over the 
landing-areas of the Luftwaffe, a fine tribute to the overwhelming 
command of the air won by the British and United States Air 
Forces. And most surprising of all, perhaps, was the fact that a 
vast concourse of ships could cross the narrow waters of the 
Channel and still achieve tactical surprise. Land, sea, and air com- 
manders kept returning to that extraordinary fact, still hardly able 
to believe that it had really been accomplished. 

Only in one aspect did die landing cause some apprehension, and 
that was in the losses of the landing-craft. The beach obstacles, laid 
with such thoroughness by the enemy along the half-tide mark, had 
caused many casualties as the craft went in. As the tide rose during 
the morning the task of removal had to be postponed except for the 
labour of some naval frogmen able to continue the work under 
water. Later in the morning, with the falling tide exposing them 
again, full work on their removal was resumed. It proved a tre- 
mendous and dangerous job, for the enemy had not lacked thor- 
oughness in the preparation of these seaward defences. They were 
mostly made of steel and concrete, and the majority of them had 
fused shells or mines attached. But by the end of the day the work 
was completed and the assault craft could now come in to the 
beaches without fear of their bottoms being ripped out or shattered 
by explosions. 

For the next seven weeks the naval bombarding forces, or a 
proportion of them, remained in the assault area ready to fire at 
call on objectives as required by the armies. But the greater naval 
task now was to organise and transport the follow-up formations 
and their supplies, a constant procession of men and materials 


arriving to nourish the momentum of invasion. Until the Mulberry 
Harbour came into operation on 9th July everything had to be 
landed over the beaches, with the exception of very small numbers 
of men through the little harbours of St. Laurent and Arromanches. 
The 5oo,oooth man, the 77,oooth vehicle, and the 150,000^ ton of 
stores were all landed on 1 5th June, nine days after the initial 
landing, and on 6th July, exactly one month after D-day, the 
millionth man stepped ashore. Eight days later the millionth ton of 
stores and the 25o,oooth vehicle were landed. This rate of build-up 
would have been even greater had it not been for a gale which blew 
in the Channel from i9th to 2ist June and reduced landings to a 
trickle. It is figures such as these which, perhaps, best illustrate the 
immensity of the naval task. 

All the time that this great cross-Channel movement of men and 
weapons and supplies was going on, the invasion area had to be 
sealed off from attack by the enemy. It was from the west that the 
heaviest threat was expected, for it was in the Biscay ports that the 
main concentrations of U-boats and destroyers lay. The waters of 
the western approaches to the Channel were covered by no fewer 
than ten escort groups of destroyers, frigates, and sloops, while the 
sky above was patrolled by the maximum strength which Coastal 
Command could muster for the occasion. As the U-boats moved up 
in their bid to dislocate the maritime movements across the Channel, 
they met the full force of this anti-submarine shield. Many were 
sunk and more damaged, in spite of their new "Schnorkel" fitting 
which enabled them to make the whole passage submerged with 
only the top of the breathing tube above water. No more than four 
or five managed to slip through, and they achieved little before they 
were themselves rounded up and sunk. 

The main forms of naval opposition used by the enemy were 
motor torpedo boats and mines; later in the operation "human 
torpedoes", long-range circling torpedoes, and explosive motor- 
boats made their appearance. They all had a few successes, but the 
whole opposition was on too small a scale materially to affect the 
operation. The elaborate Allied defensive arrangements at sea, with 
day and night patrols of destroyers and motor torpedo boats, gave 


the enemy little chance to organise any serious opposition in the 
invasion area. At best it was hardly more than spasmodic. The 
greatest nuisance, perhaps, was caused by a new type of mine, 
known as the "Oyster", actuated by the pressure wave of a passing 
ship and unsweepable by any existing method. 

This tremendous superiority in the Channel, both on sea and in 
the air, gave to the armies ashore their golden chance, in the words 
of the directive to General Eisenhower, to "enter the continent of 
Europe and, in conjunction with other United Nations, undertake 
operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her 
armed forces". 15 That they seized that chance and made the most of 
it is now a part of history and beyond the scope of this account. 
Nourished across the seas by an increasing volume of supplies and 
armaments, they overcame in fierce fighting the initial crust of 
German opposition and then swept away across Europe in an 
electrifying dash towards Germany, through France, Belgium, and 
Holland. And in that advance, they captured the great prize of 
Antwerp, a valuable modern port, virtually undamaged, and through 
which the burden of military supply could be channelled for yet 
further operations towards the east. 

The armies* bound forward inevitably brought in its train a 
similar move forward for the Navy. Isolated pockets of resistance 
in the coastal towns were subdued by the guns of the fleet, the 
blocked harbours were cleared by naval port parties as soon as they 
were captured, and the offshore waters were swept clear of mines. 
Work of this nature extended westward as well as eastward as the 
coasts of France were liberated from the enemy's hold. All through 
these naval movements to east and west there was opposition from 
small enemy units, including a number of midget submarines. 
Though it could not affect the expanding British hold on these 
continental waters, it yet had a considerable nuisance value and 
caused many losses in small craft. 

Antwerp, which had been captured on 4th September, re- 
mained unused as a supply port for some weeks, in spite of its 
obvious value as such. The military operations to capture the 
bridges across the Lower Rhine by airborne assaults at Eindhoven, 


Nijmegen, and Arnhem held up the clearance of Antwerp, a delay 
which enabled the Germans to reinforce the east bank of the River 
Scheldt in considerable strength and which was to cost the Navy 
a savage and bloody battle. The port itself lies some thirty-five 
miles up the River Scheldt, the entrance to which is commanded on 
the eastern side by the islands of South Beveland and Walcheren* 
During the last week in October the Canadians, assisted by a British 
amphibious landing on the south coast, pushed into South Beve- 
land and by the end of the month were in control of the whole 
island. There remained Walcheren. Only with its capture could the 
great port of Antwerp be used. The low-lying island, its centre 
protected from the sea by high banks, had been extensively fortified 
by the Germans and its guns commanded the waters of the Scheldt 
estuary, effectively barring them to the entrance of Allied ships. 
The protective dyke had been breached by Royal Air Force 
bombers in an earlier attack at West Kapelle, on the western side of 
the island, and as a result most of the interior of the island was under 

A three-pronged attack on Walcheren was planned for ist 
November. The Canadians in South Beveland were to attack across 
the causeway which linked the two islands, while an assault crossing 
of the Scheldt was to be made by Royal Marines, directed on 
Flushing. But the main operation for the capture of the island was 
to be a Royal Marine Commando landing, mounted from Ostend 
and directed on West Kapelle, where the breach in the dyke gave a 
good chance of getting ashore. 

The attack on Flushing, supported by artillery from the south 
bank of the Scheldt, got away to a good start and by noon, after 
four hours of fighting, the Royal Marines had a firm bridgehead on 
the island. By the following afternoon they had occupied half of 
Flushing and were clearing the dock area. The .whole of the town 
was in their possession by the evening of the jrd. 

The West Kapelle assault was a much more serious proposition, 
for there ky the main weight of the German defences, centred on 
several batteries of 6-inch guns, well protected in concrete emplace- 
ments on the sea wall. A naval support force, comprising the batde- 


ship Warspite^ and the monitors Rolens and Erebus^ was provided 
for heavy bombardment of the German defences, while the assault 
craft of the Royal Marine Commandos were also accompanied by a 
close-support squadron of twenty-five converted landing-craft 
variously armed with guns and rockets. A heavy air attack on the 
German batteries, together with close air support of the landing, 
was also to have been provided but had to be cancelled on the 
morning of the assault because of fog over the airfields. This was 
doubly unfortunate, for it also deprived the bombarding ships of 
air spotting for their fall of shot. 

As it approached the island under the lowering grey skies of a 
typical November morning, the assault force was heavily engaged 
by the enemy batteries. In order to draw this fire away from the 
Royal Marine Commandos, the close-support squadron stood in to 
point-blank range, their guns and rockets firing. Every enemy 
battery that could be brought to bear was concentrated on them. Their 
casualties were tremendous, and of the twenty-five landing-craft 
engaged in the support role no fewer than fourteen were lost. By 
their gallantry and determination in pressing home this attack they 
drew the brunt of the enemy's fire, and the Commandos were able 
to get ashore in their tank landing-craft without undue difficulty 
or loss. 

All through the day the heavy ships of the bombarding squadron 
carried out intermittent unobserved fire on the batteries, nine of 
them being engaged by this means. Some were silenced, but in the 
prevailing conditions it fell to the Royal Marines ashore to deal with 
the majority, and this they did in exemplary fashion, though it 
called for much savage and bitter fighting. 

By 3rd November most of the opposition in Walcheren had been 
overcome, though spasmodic opposition continued in some areas 
for a further two days. The importance of Walcheren did not lie, 
however, in the possession of the island but in the waters which it 
controlled, the waters which led to the port of Antwerp. As soon as 
the last German battery was silenced on 3rd November, the mine- 
sweepers gathered in the estuary and began their task of clearing a 
channel to Antwerp. A small force of them reached the city during 


the afternoon of the 4th, having detonated six ground mines on the 
way up. On the 5th they began the systematic sweeping of the docks 
and the river, both known to be extensively mined. For three weeks 
they were engaged on this difficult and intricate task, to see their 
reward on the 26th in the safe arrival at Antwerp of three coasters 
from England. Two days later a convoy of eighteen Liberty ships 
sailed up the Scheldt in perfect safety and berthed in the port. 
Thenceforward Antwerp became the main supply base of the Allied 
armies, sustaining them through the winter campaign along the left 
bank of the Rhine and, in the spring of 1945, in their crossing of the 
Rhine and their advance through Germany. 

The port was kept open only with difficulty. E-boats, operating 
from Dutch bases, made continual forays into the estuary, occasion- 
ally attacking ships but more often engaged in minelaying. One- 
and two-men midget submarines were also sent into these waters to 
attack Allied shipping, though with little success and considerable 
loss to themselves. The battle to keep the estuary open and the 
merchant ships moving steadily up to the port was continuous, for 
the Germans never gave up their efforts to dislocate this vital sea- 
borne traffic. 

All through these closing months of 1944, and, indeed, until the 
end of the war, the naval pressure on Germany was increased. 
Sweeps along the Norwegian coast and inside the Norwegian Leads 
were carried out at frequent intervals whenever the weather was 
favourable, making the movement of enemy supply ships almost 
impossibly hazardous. Far and wide ranged British warships in 
their search for the enemy, keeping him always on the run, always 
uncertain and apprehensive of the next attack. And almost daily the 
margin of naval superiority grew, even though a substantial portion 
of the fleet, as the war in Europe drew towards its inevitable end, 
was sent to reinforce British squadrons in the Far East. 

On the morning of ist May, 1945, ships of the Home Fleet left 
Scapa to carry out what proved to be their last offensive operation 
of the European war. Their main targets were the U-boat depot 
ships at Kilbotn, to the north-west of Narvik. Two cruisers the 
Norfolk and Diadem three escort carriers the Searcher, 


and Trumpeter arid five destroyers were engaged, all under the 
command of Vice- Admiral McGrigor, and they reached the flying- 
off positions on the morning of 5th May- Conditions were perfect 
as the Avengers and Wildcats went in from the carriers. The depot 
ship Black Watch was hit with eight bombs and exploded in a sheet 
of flame, a nearby tanker was destroyed, and U.yi z, discovered 
under way at Harstad, was sunk. Well satisfied, the ships turned for 
home and were still at sea when they received the signal announcing 
the unconditional surrender of Germany. As they came in sight of 
the coast of Britain on the night of the 8th the lights in the houses 
were shining out to sea. 

In waters nearer home the closing months of 1944 and the first 
four months of 1945 had seen a recrudescence of the U-boat war- 
fare. The adoption of the Schnorkel breathing-tube had brought 
to the U-boats two great advantages : the ability to charge their 
batteries while still submerged and the elimination of the danger of 
discovery by radar, for the top of the Schnorkel tube was too small 
a target to reflect a recognisable radar return. With this protection, 
it was mainly in the waters around Britain that they now sought 
their victims. 

It was a move that cut both ways. The seas around the British 
coasts are strewn with wrecks, every one of which provided an 
asdic echo. With so large a measure of naval and air superiority 
there was no difficulty in providing a reasonable number of anti- 
submarine groups and Coastal Command squadrons to cover the 
area, but their task was made the more difficult by the asdic echoes 
from wrecks. Each one had to be examined and classified as non- 
submarine before being abandoned. From the air the task was 
equally difficult, for radar could no longer give the answer and a 
Schnorkel was not easily distinguished by eye. But the U-boats, 
too, had their difficulties, for the problem of moving large numbers 
of ships in confined waters in the face of a heavy concentration of 
U-boats was handled by Admiral Horton, Commander-in-Chief 
Western Approaches, with supreme skill. All the knowledge and 
experience gained during the anti-submarine war was distilled into 
a brilliant solution of the problems of this little inshore campaign. 


The waters of the Western Approaches, from the Minches down 
to the Fastnet Rock, were divided into three areas, in each of which 
a support group operated. Two, or even three, convoys were amal- 
gamated into one, and sailed as required. Not only did this reduce 
the density of shipping in these waters, it also increased the numbers 
of escorts available for each convoy and as a result made protection 
from attack more certain. There were, in addition, the three sup- 
port groups in their areas. As each convoy entered an area, the 
support group augmented the escort and took the convoy down 
to the next area, where it was handed over to the next support 
group. It was a system that provided, at one and the same time, the 
maximum protection to the convoys and the minimum number of 
targets to the U-boats. 

There was litde that the U-boats could do. The density of air 
cover forced them to lie on the bottom (they usually chose a wreck, 
alongside which to lie) and to rely on a hydrophone watch to warn 
them of an approaching convoy. More often than not they found, 
when coming to periscope depth to investigate, that the convoy was 
too strongly guarded or had already passed out of range. They had 
their successes in an occasional ship sunk on the British doorstep; 
they had their losses when, from time to time, 'they were discovered 
and sunk. Throughout the period the exchange rate remained at 
approximately one U-boat destroyed for every merchant ship they 

But for them, too, the time was running out, although they never 
gave up trying. During April 1945 the tonnage sunk by U-boats in 
the Atlantic and in the coastal waters of Britain was the heaviest 
since the previous August. On the reverse side of the picture was 
the fact that the number of U-boats destroyed during April, and 
during the first eight days of May, reached record totals. It was, 
perhaps, an overstatement when, as late as iyth April, 1945, the 
Secretary of the United States Navy, in evidence before a Con- 
gressional Committee, said: "The German submarine menace round 
the British Isles is now very serious, because the enemy is trying to 
cripple the supply lines to Europe." 1 * Nevertheless, they created a 
problem right up to the end, even though they must have recog- 

nised, as April drew to its close, that the capacity of Germany to 
continue the fight was to be measured now only in days. The last 
two merchant ships to be destroyed by the U-boats were sunk in 
the Firth of Forth on the night of yth May, the very last night of 
hostilities. The last U-boat to be sunk was Z7.J-20, destroyed off the 
Norwegian coast by a Coastal Command Catalina on the morning 
of the same day. 

It was fortunate for the Allies that the war ended when it did, 
for the new design of U-boat with long endurance and high under- 
water speed, on which the enemy was pinning high hopes, was 
approaching operational use. Its advent would certainly have posed 
a difficult problem for the anti-submarine forces, and one to which 
at the time there was no certain answer. Although, of course, it 
had come far too late to influence the course of the war at sea, 
it could certainly have made a considerable nuisance of itself in 
operations against Allied shipping had it ever appeared at sea. 

Under the terms of the surrender, U-boats at sea were ordered 
to surface, to report their positions, and to proceed by fixed routes 
to prescribed ports. Every eight hours these orders were broadcast 
both in plain language and in the U-boat cipher by the German 
authorities. Early on the 9th the first U-boat complied and was 
ordered to a Scottish port. Others followed until, by ist June, the 
seas were reckoned to be clear. A couple of U-boats were still un- 
accounted for, but in the end they too made belated surrenders, one 
at Mar del Plata, Argentina, on loth July, the other at the same port 
on ryth August. This last U-boat,^ had been off Norway 
when she heard the surrender signal but had made the long journey 
to Argentina, much of it below the surface, in order to avoid sur- 
rendering to the Allies. It made no difference, for at the end Argen- 
tina, too, had declared war on Germany and the U-boat was 
promptly handed over to the United States Navy. 

The end in Europe came quietly, almost with a sense of anti- 
climax for having been so long apparent from the scale of the Allied 
victories in Germany. It would be an over-simplification to suggest 
that the Allies were carried to victory on the back of their maritime 
power, although in the final analysis it was maritime power that 


made possible the Allied victory. The apparent paradox can Be 
explained by the fact that, in modern war, the true exercise of mari- 
time power depends nearly as much upon the exertions of land and 
air forces as it does upon naval. The pattern of sea power is so 
closely interwoven with air and land power that often the boundaries 
between them merge into each other. 

It had been a remarkable campaign, showing a reversion from the 
continental strategy of 1914-18 to the traditional maritime strategy 
of an island nation. The evil days of the First World War, with vast 
armies locked in close combat and with casualties counted in the 
millions, had given way to the wiser concept of utilising the resili- 
ence of sea power, now backed with air power, to the limit of its 
usefulness. It had been at times a desperately close affair, and there 
had been periods when the control of the oceans, on which the 
whole edifice of Allied strategy stood, had looked like slipping from 
the Allied grasp. Those storms, however, had been weathered, and 
as the naval strength at sea grew, so the grip upon the Axis had been 
tightened. It was as though an invisible barrier had been thrown 
around the Axis powers, maintained by the maritime forces of the 
Allied nations and cutting off Germany and Italy from the outside 
world. And gradually, with the growing Allied strength at sea, that 
barrier had been moved ever closer in until, behind its shield, the 
armies had been launched on their chosen battlefields to finish off 
the job. 

It was the end of a chapter in European history. Once again, as 
so often in past campaigns, the Navy had emerged from its ordeal 
to see its work crowned by overwhelming victory on land/ But the 
Navy's work was not finished yet. Even as the guns in Europe grew 
silent, naval eyes had already turned to the East. There, across the 
oceans on the other side of the world, the curtain was up for the 
final act of another great drama. Two British Fleets were already 
there to play their part in the action and, with the downfall of 
Germany, more ships were on the way. 


Chapter 1 4 


THE vast Japanese advance of 1942 had brought in its train 
dominion over a wide area of south-east Asia and over the 
chain of islands running down towards Australia. Java had 
fallen into their eager grasp after the defeat of Admiral Doorman's 
hastily assembled squadron in the battle of the Java Sea on 27th 
February, 1942. In April they completed their conquest of Burma, 
and their raid into the Indian Ocean during that same month proved 
that they had as yet little to fear from the newly constituted British 
Eastern Fleet under Admiral Somerville. 

So fax their strategy had been supremely successful. Based initially 
upon surprise and political deceit, they had been able to follow up 
their first outstanding success at Pearl Harbour with an advance so 
swift that it swept the Allies off balance and gave them no chance to 
recover it. Each new step forward was preceded by the capture or 
construction of airfields, so that all through their long march for- 
ward there was ample cover from land-based aircraft for the Japan- 
ese assault forces. To this simple strategy the Allies, disorganised by 
defeat, had no answer. 

It was at this stage of the campaign that the Japanese first began 
to run into difficulties. They had made their great gains with ridicu- 
lous ease, but to consolidate them was another matter. The Japanese 
plan was to deny to the Allies those bases in the Pacific from which 
offensive operations might be possible against them, and it was in 
the execution of this plan that Japan took her first steps along the 


downward path. It was basically unsound in that it stretched the 
new "empire" far beyond the capacity of Japanese sea and air power 
to maintain, and thus opened the door to Allied initiative. 

This expansion in search of an outer defence line led the Japanese 
northward to the Aleutian Islands, eastward to Midway Island, and 
southward through eastern New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. 
Two landings were made in the Aleutians, yet although they led to 
much spasmodic fighting in the icy and foggy waters of the northern 
Pacific, they had small effect on the campaign as a whqle. To neither 
side did these inhospitable islands prove of much value. 

Midway, however, had been a very different afiair. There, as 
described on p. 253, four Japanese carriers had been sunk, the 
Soryu, Kaga, Akagi, and Hiryu, and with them went most of the 
Japanese hopes of holding the Americans at bay. 1 This was the 
turning-point in the Pacific War, reversing completely the strategic 
situation in that ocean. It did more than save Midway Island as an 
important American base, for it brought to an abrupt end the 
Japanese offensive phase and thereafter placed them squarely on the 
defensive. Four carriers, 250 naval aircraft, and 100 well-trained 
pilots were a crippling loss to the Japanese, all the more so as they 
formed the backbone of the striking force on which Japan relied 
to repulse American attacks on her new "co-prosperity sphere". 
Japanese industrial capacity was already so strained that replace- 
ment of the four lost carriers was beyond their powers; that of 
America so flexible that, a little over a year later, more than fifty 
carriers were in commission. 

The battle of Midway had repercussions, too, far away to the 
south, where the Japanese were setting up their defensive outposts 
in the Solomon Islands. This was an area vital to both sides* To the 
Japanese it was a doorway to New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa, with 
all that that meant in the threat to Allied supplies!; to the Allies it 
was the first stepping-stone in the planned offensive through New 
Guinea to the Philippines. Moreover, it was a position of great 
strategic importance, for it lay close to the main supply route 
between the United States and their forward bases in New Zealand 
and Australia. In Japanese possession the Solomons could prove an 


impossible bar to progress; as an Allied base the vital shipping on 
the main supply route would be safeguarded. 

As at Midway, the Japanese played into Allied hands. During 
their rapid advance southward at the outbreak of the war their 
strategy had been wellnigh faultless, making certain of local air 
superiority before bringing forward their assault and occupation 
forces. But in the case of the Solomons they were in a hurry. They 
had an air base at Rabaul, in New Britain, some 700 miles from 
Guadalcanal, but it was too far away to provide cover for its initial 
capture. The Japanese troops leapt ahead of their air support, and 
it was that which gave the Allies their chance. The loss of the four 
carriers at Midway was now to cost the Japanese dear. 

The Allied decision to attack in the Solomons was taken only 
just in time, for Japanese airfields were under construction both in 
Bougainville, halfway between Rabaul and Guadalcanal, and at 
Guadalcanal itseE Had that at Guadalcanal been in use and it was 
within a few hours of completion when American troops landed on 
7th August, 1942 the result might have been very different. 

The key to the Solomon Islands campaign was this Guadalcanal 
airfield. It was captured by an American amphibious force at the 
outset and United States aircraft were operating from it within two 
or three weeks. It was successfully defended against persistent and 
bitter attacks launched with all the ferocity and suicidal courage for 
which the Japanese were noted. It was defended, moreover, in spite 
of a severe naval defeat on the second night of the campaign, 
which for a time forced the withdrawal of all Allied shipping from 
these waters. 

This was the battle of Savo Island, fought on the night of 8th/9th 
August. It had been widely thought in the United States, and 
promulgated in many Intelligence reports, that the Japanese were 
inexperienced in night fighting. The United States Pacific Fleet it- 
self had no night-fighting instructions and was ignorant of the 
techniques and tactics. It may be that this faulty assessment of the 
enemy, coupled with their own lack of experience, produced less 
than the requisite watchfulness at sea during the dark hours. But 
whatever the cause, any suggestions that the Japanese were in- 


capable of night action were very quickly removed after the battle. 

The transport anchorage off Guadalcanal, from which the Amer- 
ican soldiers and their supplies were landed on the island, was 
guarded from seaward by four United States and two Australian 
heavy cruisers, together with a few American destroyers. During 
the hours of darkness these ships withdrew from the immediate 
anchorage area and patrolled the approaches to it north and south 
of Savo Island. On the evening of the 8th Rear-Admiral Crutchley, 
in command of the cruisers and with his flag flying in the Australia, 
had been called to a conference with the American admiral. In his 
absence the other five cruisers H.M.A.S. Canberra and the United 
States cruisers Chicago, Vincennes, Qidncy, and Astoria were 
carrying out the night patrol off Savo Island. They were in two di- 
visions, covering adjacent patrol areas. 

Unseen, and totally unexpected, a Japanese squadron of seven 
cruisers steamed down between the two divisions. They passed 
within 500 yards of the American destroyer Blue, which was on 
radar patrol, without being sighted by her. The first intimation of 
their presence was a salvo of torpedoes fired at the Canberra and 
Chicago. Almost immediately afterwards the Vincennes, Quzncy, and 
Astoria came under heavy and accurate gunfire. They were all set 
on fire and sunk. The Canberra, too, was blazing and sank an hour 
or so later. Of the five Allied cruisers, only the Chicago escaped to 
reach port, badly damaged by a torpedo hit 2 

In this one blow the Allied command of the seas around Guadal- 
canal had been lost. The inevitable result was the withdrawal of the 
ships of the amphibious forces, leaving the American marines already 
ashore without naval support. For a time supplies could only be 
carried to them by destroyers operating at night, and that they 
managed to hold out, and eventually to win their long and bitter 
battle, is remarkable testimony to their fortitude and endurance. 

For six months the Japanese continued their efforts to regain the 
vital Guadalcanal airfield. It was not until the first week in February 
1943 that they finally owned themselves beaten and withdrew the 
last of their men. 

This American occupation of the Solomons^ so dearly bought, 


enabled them to proceed with the great series of offensive moves 
which was to lead in the end to the downfall of Japan, It was based 
entirely on maritime power, which is the modern combination of 
control at sea and of the air above it, and it stands out, perhaps, as 
the classic example of a great campaign won by the flexibility in 
attack which this command of the sea and air brings in its train. 
The vastness of American production and the prodigality of sup- 
plies of all types with which they sustained their great forces in the 
Pacific gave them the ability to fight for and to win the control of 
the oceans on which their chosen strategy depended. 

Two main axes of advance were followed. One, under the overall 
command of General MacArthur, was directed north-westward 
with its ultimate goal in the Philippine Islands. The second, under 
Admiral Nimitz, drove westward from Hawaii behind a screen of 
carriers. It cut across the line of the Japanese sea communications 
with their newly-won gains in the south, and thus complemented 
General MacArthur's advance by permitting him to by-pass Japan- 
ese outposts in the certain knowledge that American sea and air 
power could deny them the supplies on which they depended. This 
by-passing strategy, advancing north-westward towards the Japan- 
ese home islands in a series of great forward bounds, had the 
inestimable advantage of short-circuiting the necessity of a long, 
slogging battle up the chain of Japanese-controlled islands. It did 
not matter that strong enemy bases were left unattacked in the rear, 
for the overwhelming United States sea power in the Pacific made 
sure that they would perish of attrition by cutting off their supplies. 

The vast distances in the Pacific over which the Japanese war 
was fought called for a new technique in the art of keeping fleets 
at sea. This was achieved by the Americans with the provision of an 
extensive fleet train which formed, in effect, a floating base a hun- 
dred miles or so behind the scene of operations. By thus giving to 
the warships facilities for repair, re-fuelling, re-ammunitioning, and 
even recreation in the vicinity of battle, the fleet could remain at sea 
and carry out offensive operations for periods of from six to eight 
weeks without the need of shore bases. It was a practice that was 
followed by the British Pacific Fleet when it made its appearance in 


those waters, though its fleet train, for economic reasons, had to be 
far less elaborate than that of the Americans. 

It was, however, in the Indian Ocean, where British naval 
strength was predominant, that the main British contribution to the 
defeat of Japan was eventually made. The loss of Singapore and the 



Japanese occupation of Burma in 1942 had deprived the British 
Eastern Fleet of all its bases in the Indian Ocean .with the exception 
of Colombo and Trincomalee, in Ceylon. Even these bases had to 
be given up after the Japanese raids in April 1942 which resulted 
in the sinking of the carrier fftrmes and the cruisers Cornwall and 
Dorsetshire. Admiral Somervilfe had then withdrawn the fleet to 


Kilmdini, and the Japanese had been left in unquestioned command 
of the Bay of Bengal. 

The return of British sea power into these eastern waters could 
be made only by stages as and when ships became available from the 
more important European theatre. The capture of Diego Suarez, in 
Madagascar, had eased the situation, it is true, but it was not until 
the surrender of the Italian Fleet in September 1943 that worthwhile 
reinforcements made possible a full return to Indian waters. In 
January 1944 the Eastern Fleet was back in Ceylon, making its 
main base at Trincomalee, and in its new composition, yiih an 
effective force of battleships, carriers, and cruisers, it was at last able 
to turn to the offensive. 

Admiral Somerville's first worry was a burst of U-boat activity, 
both German and Japanese, in the first quarter of 1944. In the relative 
immunity from submarine attack during 1943 it had been found 
possible to sail many ships independently, but with the U-boats 
now becoming active, one of the Commander-in-Chief 3 s first acts 
was to reinstitute a large measure of convoy. It was a task made 
more difficult by lack of escorts, air as well as surface, and this 
shortage was tragically illustrated in February when the troop 
transport Khedive Ismail was torpedoed off the Maldive Islands 
while in a convoy for which no air cover had been provided. She 
sank in two minutes with the loss of nearly 1,300 lives, including 
those of a number of Wrens, A.T.S., and nursing sisters. That the 
U-boat concerned was promptly sunk by the Petard was encourag- 
ing in that it could now sink no more ships, but was, none the less, 
scant consolation for so heavy a loss of life. 

The heavy rate of sinkings in the Indian Ocean continued until 
March, and was made all the harder to bear by many cases of sicken- 
ing atrocity on the part of Japanese submarine commanders. Life- 
boats full of survivors were frequently machine-gunned, and some- 
times deliberately rammed and sunk. In one case the crew of a 
merchant ship was lined up on the U-boat's casing and massacred 
with swords, crowbars, and hammers. Admiral Somerville, faced 
with these reports and the impossibility of finding additional es- 
corts from his own slender resources, pressed the Admiralty on 


several occasions for reinforcements. Few, however, could be 
spared, for at home the demands for Operation "Overlord**, the 
invasion of North-west Europe, were growing almost day by day. 
Some, scraped together by cutting commitments in the Mediter- 
ranean and the Atlantic, did reach Admiral Somerville by the end 
of March, but they still left him woefully short. 

It was, in fact, a particularly anxious time, for large numbers of 
troops and considerable cargoes of supplies were being carried 
across the Indian Ocean to reinforce the i4th Army in Burma, now 
building up for a major offensive. It was a fortunate turn of events 
that, from the end of March, the submarine onslaught dwindled 
away for a few months to almost negligible proportions. It was 
caused partly by the sinking of three enemy tankers used for re- 
fuelling U-boats at sea, partly by successful counter-attacks which 
sank three of the six German U-boats operating in the area, and 
partly by the destruction in the Atlantic of two supply U-boats on 
their way to the Indian Ocean. They had been carrying replenish- 
ments of the new "Gnat" acoustic torpedoes and their feilure to 
reach their destination did much to bring the submarine campaign 
to an end. 

The growing strength of the fleet in the Indian Ocean, coupled 
with a temporary reinforcement from the United States Pacific 
Fleet, was a portent of more offensive operations in this area. On 
igth April Admiral Somerville opened the programme with an air 
strike on the island of Sabang, a diversion whose object -was the 
holding of Japanese air and surface forces in the area while the 
American attadt on Hollandia, in Dutch New Guinea^ was develop- 
ing. With the main fleet engaged as a covering force, aircraft from 
H.M.S. Illustrious and U.S.S. Saratoga inflicted severe damage in 
the dockyard area almost without reply from the enemy. One 
American Hellcat fighter was lost, the pilot being recovered by the 
British submarine Tactician. Two Japanese merchant vessels were 
sunk, three others damaged, and twenty-seven enemy aircraft were 
claimed as destroyed, twenty-four on the ground and three in the 
air. A second strike by the Eastern Fleet on Surabaya a month later 
was equally successfUL The same two carriers took part, and the 


damage on this occasion included the complete destruction of the 
oil refinery at Wonokromo. 

An even more ambitious operation took place on 25th July, 
when Admiral Somerville took the whole Eastern Fleet back to 
Sabang for a bombardment of the Japanese shore defences. As the 
fleet approached the enemy base, fighters from the Illustrious and 
Victorious attacked the airfield to silence any possible opposition 
and caught the Japanese aircraft on the ground. Four battleships, 
seven cruisers, and ten destroyers then closed the land from the 
northward and opened fire shortly after dawn at ranges which 
varied from 18,000 to 3,000 yards, virtually point-blank with naval 
guns. An inshore force of three destroyers and the Dutch cruiser 
Tromp) under the command of Captain R. G. Onslow, entered the 
harbour to add to the damage with their close-range fire. The whole 
of the dockyard area was heavily hit, and both the wireless and the 
radar stations were put out of action. 

British submarines, too, were active, ranging into the Straits of 
Malacca, in the coastal areas off Burma, around the Andaman 
Islands, and even farther afield in the waters of the Dutch East 
Indies. Apart from an extensive junk traffic carrying supplies to 
Japanese troops there were few worthwhile targets, although in 
January 1944 the Tally Ho sank the cruiser Kuma off Penang. But 
if the targets were small individually, they were large enough in the 
aggregate to play an appreciable part in the gradual strangulation 
of Japanese seaborne supply. 

All these operations in the Indian Ocean, none of them particu- 
larly noteworthy perhaps, were nevertheless closely linked with the 
land operations against the Japanese in Burma. The defeat of the 
Japanese offensive on the Manipur front against India in April and 
May 1944 had presented the Supreme Commander, Admiral Lord 
Louis Mountbatten, with a chance which he was quick to seize of 
striking a blow of real force at the enemy. The Japanese had thought 
that the breaking of the monsoon would give them the opportunity 
of withdrawing their broken troops unmolested, but they had reck- 
oned without the I4th Army incidentally the largest single army 
in the world and also without modern medical science which was 


able to hold at bay the toll of sickness in tropical climates. When the 
Japanese offensive was broken and turned in mid-May, the I4th 
Army were quickly on the enemy's heels, and in a series of shattering 
blows threw the Japanese back across the Chindwin River with 
terrific losses. The I4th Army itself forced crossings of the river 
in November and December. Mandalay was now within range, and 
Admiral Mountbatten decided that its capture should be attempted 
without delay and the advance continued beyond it to Rangoon. 

It was at this point that the Eastern Fleet's long task in the Indian 
Ocean became fully apparent. Poor roads and an insufficient railway 
system made air supply of the Army essential if it were to maintain 
the momentum of its advance beyond Mandalay to Rangoon. 
Indian bases were too far away for such supply and the only alterna- 
tive was an air supply base in the Arakan Peninsula. This called for 
the capture of the Akyab airfields, which in its turn meant an amphi- 
bious assault in conjunction with an offensive thrust by land. And 
for that it was necessary to have complete maritime control over the 
Bay of Bengal and also over the sea area bounded by the Andaman 
and Nicobar Islands, the Tenasserim and Kra coasts, and the 
northern end of Sumatra. 

This, indeed, was what the Eastern Fleet had achieved in its 
operations during 1944, though it is but true to point out that this 
control was gained more by lack of Japanese naval reaction than by 
any hard fighting at sea in die Indian Ocean. It is equally true to add 
that, throughout the Burma campaign, the overwhelming share of 
the fighting fell upon the land and air forces. The Navy's role was 
always secondary throughout, its main responsibility being the safe 
passage of reinforcements and supplies and the denial of the waters 
of the Indian Ocean to Japanese naval incursion. With the Japanese 
Navy so fully occupied in the Pacific, the danger of raids into these 
British-controlled sea areas was remote* 

A change in the command of the Eastern Fleet took place in 
August 1944, when Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser arrived from the 
Home Fleet to relieve Admiral Somervifle. It proved to be litde 
more than a temporary command, for three months later he was 
selected to command the newly-formed British Pacific Fleet, bring 


relieved in the Indian Ocean by Admiral Sir Arthur Power. With 
this second change in command, the name of the Fleet itself was 
altered to the East Indies Fleet in order to avoid any confusion with 
the British Pacific Fleet farther east. 

Planning for the amphibious assault on Akyab began in Novem- 
ber 1944, and was given the code name "Talon", It was approved 
by Admiral Mountbatten at the end of the month, 3 but was in fact 
overtaken by the rapidity of the Army's advance ashore. By 2yth 
December it was learned that the Japanese were preparing to 
evacuate Akyab, and a new plan, with the code name of "Lightning", 
was made for the landing. The assault went in just after dawn on 
3rd January, 1945, and the troops were put ashore without opposi- 
tion. Both the port and the airfields were quickly occupied. 

The naval .forces engaged in the Arakan campaign were then 
given two further tasks. The first was the landing and maintenance 
of troops at different points along the coast in order to cut off the 
retreating Japanese, the second was the capture of Ramree and 
Cheduba Islands, about 80-100 miles farther south, where the 
facilities for airfields were better than Akyab. At the same time a 
considerable force of coastal vessels penetrated into the intricate 
network of waterways, or chaungs, along the Arakan seaboard, 
shooting up Japanese seaborne supplies and cutting their escape 

None of this work could have been done without the labours 
of small naval parties known as Combined Operations Pilotage 
parties. Their duty it was to explore and chart the labyrinth of 
mangrove swamps and tidal streams in which the coastal craft 
carried out their operations. Without their work many of the small 
amphibious operations could never have been carried out, but at 
the same time it was dangerous work and "involved stealing up the 
chaungs in canoes during the night or in the mist of early morning 
to sound for depth, and marking the channel with buoys. It meant 
climbing ashore at low tide up the slimy banks to reconnoitre 
beyond them, the prospect of assault across the firm (or flooded) 
paddy-fields. At any bend or confluence the chaung might be mined 
or ambushed. Indeed, the whole distance of this jungle water-maze 


was a sniper's paradise." 4 It might well have been added that it was 
a paradise for crocodiles as well. 

The easy capture of Akyab was followed by a number of small 
landing operations down the coast. In one or two cases there was 
some opposition, usually silenced by a bombardment from sup- 
porting cruisers and destroyers. The main difficulties were rarely, 
however, the extent of any Japanese reaction so much as the intricate 
navigation required to bring the landing-craft to their selected 
beaches. That all the landings were carried through with great 
accuracy and with negligible casualties was a measure of the pre- 
paratory work performed by the Combined Operations Pilotage 
parties. To them, probably, the major credit was due. 

As more and more of the Arakan coast fell into British hands, 
the planning for the assault on Ramree Island took on a new urgency. 
This was the largest operation carried out by the Navy in Burma 
and involved the landing of one division of the Army, some 23,000 
men, on the northern beaches of the island. Although the Japanese 
garrison on Ramree Island was thought only to number about 
1,000 men, and although it was known that the enemy's naval 
forces consisted only of a few motor gunboats, prodigious forces 
were assembled for the assault, including the battleship Queen 
Elizabeth for bombardment purposes. 5 In addition, the escort carrier 
Ameer, the cruiser Phoebe^ and seven destroyers accompanied the 
landing and assault craft. Seven days before the landing took place 
a small party of soldiers was put ashore from two motor-launches 
in the vicinity of the assault beaches. They were successfully re- 
embarked three nights later after having made a complete recon- 
naissance of the harbour. 6 

The troops were landed on their beaches on the morning of 2ist 
January against minor opposition which was quickly overcome. 
By the end of the day over 7,000 men were ashore as well as 120 
vehicles and 70 tons of stores. During the following days the 
build-up went on rapidly, continuing until i2th February, by which 
date 23,091 men, 679 vehicles, and 9,233 tons of stores had been put 
ashore in the island. That so considerable a force, both on land and 
at sea, should be used to capture an island defended by 1,000 


Japanese without air or naval support appears surprising. As events 
turned out, the proposed airfields on Ramree were not ready for the 
transport aircraft, with which it was hoped to supply the i4th Army, 
until 1 5th May, by which time Rangoon itself had been occupied 
and the whole campaign was virtually over. 

The assault on Rangoon on 2nd May followed much the same 
pattern as on Ramree Island. Once again overwhelming power was 
deployed at sea and on land, only to discover that the city had 
already been evacuated by the Japanese, and that British prisoners- 
of-war had released themselves and taken over its administration. 
The landings all went very much as planned, though in the circum- 
stances it proved little more than a demonstration of navigational 
skill in bringing the large convoys of assault and landing-craft 
safely up the river in darkness. 7 

These naval operations in Burma, all of them in general support 
of the Army, were of relatively minor importance. In the case of 
every assault from the sea the batde had already been won in 
advance by operations of the Army ashore, with the result that 
opposition to the landings had been reduced to a minimum. Yet 
the campaign is of some interest as illustrating the ability of the 
Navy to operate on a significant assault scale that is, of landing 
up to one division in amphibious operations even in such a maze 
of uncharted waters as the chaungs and swamps of the Arakan coast. 

It had been agreed by the Combined Chiefs of Staff 8 in 1943 that 
operations in the South-east Asia area should be conducted in 
support of the main offensive in the Pacific, leaving the Indian 
Ocean as a somewhat subsidiary area of naval importance. The 
chief duty of the East Indies Fleet, therefore, became more of a 
holding and trade protection force than a main fighting fleet, 
although during 1944 it was augmented temporarily by the ships 
destined eventually for the Pacific. Support for the Pacific operations 
had taken the form during 1944 of naval strikes against Japanese 
war potential, such as the Fleet Air Arm attacks on the Andaman 
Islands and Sabang, and this policy was continued in early 1945 by 
similar attacks against Japanese oil installations in Sumatra. By the 
beginning of the year a considerable carrier force, comprising the 


Indomitable, Indefatigable, Illustrious, and Victorious, had been 
assembled at Trincomalee under the command of Rear-Admiral 
Vian. It was, in fact, destined for the Pacific Fleet, but before pro- 
ceeding to Australia Rear-Admiral Vian carried out three strikes 
during January in the East Indies command area. These were 
against the oil refinery at Pangkalan Brandan on 4th January, at 
Palembang on the 24th and again on the 29th, when the refineries 
on both banks of the river were severely damaged. All three were 
successful, but were in essence no more than "tip and run" raids. 

By mid-1944 the Japanese Navy, on the full defensive in the 
Pacific, had virtually abandoned any pretence of control in the 
waters around Burma, leaving those seas bare of targets. Such sea- 
borne traffic as did attempt to use the Malacca Strait and the Java 
Sea was severely harassed by the British submarines on patrol there. 

Yet occasionally a target made a reluctant appearance. On loth 
May the submarines Statesman and Subtle, on patrol in the Malacca 
Strait, both reported a Japanese cruiser escorted by a single destroy- 
er. Neither was able to get within range for an attack. The Subtle 
sighted her again on the I2th, missed with an attack at long range, 
but reported her position to the Commander-in-Chief. A consider- 
able force of ships, engaged in carrying out diversionary attacks to 
cover the troop convoys to Rangoon, were in the vicinity and 
Admiral Power ordered them to search for her. She was sighted 
again on the i5th by an aircraft from the carrier Shah, shadowed 
from the air, and damaged in a bombing attack by three Avengers 
later in the day. 

The nearest ships to her were the five destroyers of the 26th 
Flotilla, the Saumare^, Venus, Vigilant, Virago, and Verulam, at 
the time about eighty-five miles away. Increasing speed to twenty- 
seven knots they searched along a bearing calculated on her farthest- 
on position and shortly after midnight found her by radar. The 
destroyers shadowed her in the darkness for a short period while 
preparations for the attack were made, and then went in, simultane- 
ously but independently, to fire their torpedoes from different 
bearings at very close range. It was in all respects a model destroyer 
attack and the cruiser was hit eight times. She was the io,ooo-ton 


Hagura and she sank almost at once. Her escorting destroyer, the 
Kamika^ was severely damaged by gunfire but succeeded in making 
good her escape in the darkness. 

With the occupation of Rangoon the war in Burma was virtually 
over. The Burmese R.N.V.R. took over the duty of cutting the 
Japanese escape route east of the Irrawaddy River and of landing 
small parties of troops for mopping-up purposes, but these on the 
whole were very minor operations. There was virtually no fighting, 
and the final Japanese surrender on i4th August came as little sur- 
prise. Throughout the campaign it had been so much more the 
battle on shore which had proved the decisive factor that the opera- 
tions at sea in the Indian Ocean played a very secondary part in the 
victory. Once the command of the seas had been obtained, and by 
1944 it was no longer being challenged by the Japanese, the ultimate 
victory was assured. 

The decision to send a British fleet into the Pacific was approved 
in principle by the Combined Chiefs of Staff late in 1943,** a decision 
which entailed considerable forward planning before the ships 
could arrive. Some British units, notably submarines and the fast 
minelayer Ariadne^ were already operating in Pacific waters, while 
many Australian ships were also engaged there. Admiral King, the 
American Chief of Naval Operations, in commenting on the 
decision, proposed that any British fleet should be self-supporting, 
a suggestion which not only entailed a considerable build-up of 
stores in Australia but also called for the provision of a fleet train 
of supply and repair ships of all kinds that could sustain the fleet at 
sea for long periods without the need for a return to shore bases. 
The Americans had already perfected this new principle of naval 
war for operations in areas where distances were so vast, but to the 
British it was a new departure in naval planning. The Admiralty 
sent a naval mission to Washington in February 1944 to study the 
logistics of American task forces in the Pacific and to make recom- 
mendations as to the best way of maintaining the proposed British 
Fleet in Pacific waters. Rear-Admiral Daniel, leading the naval 
mission, very quickly reached the decision that the only way to do 
so was to adopt the American method of the fleet train. 


The British Pacific Fleet came formally into being on the 
morning of 2ind November, 1944, when Admiral Fraser hoisted 
his flag as Commander-in-Chief first in the gunboat Tarantula and 
later in the battleship Howe. In her he sailed for Australia on 2nd 
December, the first capital ship of the new fleet to arrive in Pacific 
waters. Vice-Admiral Sir Bernard Rawlings, his second-in-com- 
mand, followed a few days later in the King George V^ while the 
carriers, under Rear-Admiral Vian, arrived in Australia, following 
their strike on the oil installations at Palembang, early in February 

By the New Year of 1945, the American advance in the Pacific 
had reached the Philippine Islands and had cleared Leyte of the 
enemy. Troops were also ashore and mopping-up in Mindoro 
Island. On 9th January they invaded Luzon, the largest island in the 
Philippine group, landing in the Lingayen Gulf, north of Manila 
Bay. Manila itself, capital of the Philippines, was captured a month 
later. Admiral Fraser, who was present at the Lingayen Gulf action 
as a spectator, had there his first experience of the Japanese Kami- 
kaze suicide bombers and, among other ships sunk or damaged as a 
result of their attacks, saw the cruiser Australia survive five hits by 
them. It was a good augury for the coming actions of the Fleet in 
the Pacific, revealing as it did the strength and staunchness of 
British shipbuilding. So far as carriers were concerned, Admiral 
Fraser's confidence proved to be fully justified. 

With the capture of the Philippines the naval war in the Pacific 
entered its final phase. During February 1945, United States Marines 
landed on the island of Iwojima in the Volcano Islands, and no more 
than 750 miles from Tokyo. It took a month of desperate fighting 
to subdue the fanatical Japanese, over 20,000 of whom fought to the 
death. Iwojima stands out as an action fought in the great tradition 
of the United States Marine Corps, the elite of the American armed 
forces, a battle in which, as Admiral Nimitz wrote with justifiable 
pride, "uncommon valour had been commonly displayed". 

There was now one more step to make before the home islands 
of Japan were brought within range of invasion. This step was to 
the Ryukyus, the group of islands which stretch between Japan and 


Formosa. The target in this group was Okinawa, the largest of the 
islands, and the assault date was fixed as ist April. 

The assault against Okinawa was also the signal for the first 
appearance of the British Pacific Fleet upon the operational stage 
in these distant waters. It was not engaged in the main attack, but 
had the task of neutralising Japanese airfields in the Sakishima 
group of islands just south of the Ryukyus. The fleet, accompanied 
by its fleet train, sailed from the Caroline Islands on 2jrd March, 
with two battleships, four fleet carriers, five cruisers, and eleven 
destroyers. On 26th March it was in its operational area and made 
the first of a series of attacks on the airfields and installations in the 
islands. For sixty-two days, with a break midway of eight days at 
Leyte for taking on additional stores, the fleet remained at sea, being 
nourished at intervals in a refuelling area by the fleet train. 10 This 
was something new in the British Navy, a technique now being 
practised for the first time, and the success of the operation put to 
rest some doubts expressed by American naval officers as to the 
British ability to operate for long periods at sea in this Pacific 
manner. It had, of course, been normal American practice in this 
great ocean over the past two years. 

Inevitably the fleet, and especially the carriers, attracted the 
attention of Japanese suicide bombers. The Indefatigable was hit at 
the base of her island superstructure on the morning of ist April, 
but was operational again by the afternoon. During the second 
series of strikes in May, the Formidable and Indomitable were both 
hit in Kamikaze attacks on the 4th, while the Victorious and, for the 
second time, the Formidable were hit on the 9th. In each case the 
damage proved to be only temporary and all ships were operational 
again within a matter of hours, a state of affeirs that compared 
favourably with American carrier experience. With them a hit on 
the flight-deck by a suicide bomber put the carrier out of action 
for a long period, for they had not adopted the British practice 
of fitting armoured flight-decks in their carriers. 

Enemy resistance on shore in Okinawa came to an end on 2ist 
June, and with it the last hope of Japanese survival perished. Already, 
in point of fact, Japan was a defeated nation, although, through the 

stubbornness of her leaders, she still refused to accept the fact. In the 
three and a half years during which she had been engaged in war 
the greater part of her fleet and nearly the whole of her merchant 
fleet had been wiped out. It was, indeed, the loss of the merchant 
shipping which created the conditions for Allied victory and which 
drained the life-blood from her industry and armed forces. In all, 
88 per cent, of Japanese shipping was sunk, and of that, British, 
United States, and Dutch submarines sank two-thirds. By the 
beginning of 1944 the situation was beginning to look bleak; a year 
later and it was black indeed. Cut off from imports from her original 
conquests in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, a tottering national 
economy was bolstered only by trade across the Sea of Japan with 
China. In mid-1945 this last line of communication with the outer 
world was threatened. On 9th June American submarines began 
to dominate even these closed waters, and in the course of the next 
eleven days they sank twenty-seven ships. This rate of sinking 
dwindled after the first onslaught, not from any falling-off in skill 
or lack of forceful tactics on the part of the submarine captains but 
entirely because Japanese ships were no longer there to be sunk. 

More vulnerable even than Great Britain that other island 
nation in the West to a war of attrition at sea, Japan's economy 
lay in ruins. As late as June 1945 she still had as many as two million 
unbeaten troops in the field. She still had a host of men willing and 
eager to hurl themselves to death in suicide aircraft. They were all 
of no value to her now, for the soldiers faced starvation for lack of 
supplies, the aircraft remained on the ground for lack of fiiel. 
Japan had now come to the end of the road. 

British submarines, both of the Pacific and East Indies Fleets, 
played their part in this sea blockade. For the most part their prey 
consisted of small coasters and junks, to which the Japanese were 
now reduced, though occasionally fortune smiled upon them in the 
shape of a more dramatic target. These, however, grew progressively 
rarer as the Japanese were driven farther and farther back into their 
home waters. Such a target was seen through the periscope of the 
Trenchant on 8th June, and all the more welcome for appearing in 
the narrow and confined waters of the Banka Strait, off Sumatra. 


She was the io,ooo-ton cruiser AsJdgara, and she sank in half an 
hour after being hit by five of the Trenchant *s torpedoes. 

More dramatic still was an echo, in the waters around Singapore, 
of the midget submarine attacks which had crippled the Tirpit^ in 
the fastness of her Norwegian fjord in 1943. Four British midget 
submarines were allocated in July to the United States Seventh 
Fleet in the Pacific. Their tasks were to cut cables and to attack 
Japanese heavy cruisers as they lay in the Johore Strait, leading 
to Singapore. They sailed, each in tow of a British submarine, on 
27th July; the D-day for their operations was the 3ist. 

The cable-cutting operations were performed by a diver from 
the midget submarines working on the sea bed. On her D-day 
XE4 cut both the Saigon-Hong Kong and Saigon-Singapore 
cables, returning with one foot's length of each cable she had cut as 
a proof of her success. XE5 was less successful, though she spent 
four days and nights searching in the defended waters of Hong 
Kong for the cable from there to Singapore. 

The attack on the cruisers was also carried out on the 3ist. 
XEi, towed by the submarine Spark, whose target lay at the 
entrance to the naval yard, was delayed in her passage up the Johore 
Strait by several encounters with surface craft. As a result she was 
too late to reach the cruiser she was to attack and to make her return 
passage in daylight. She was thus forced to come back with her 
task unattempted. Xj 9 towed by the Stygian, had better fortune. 
Lieutenant I. E. Fraser, R.N.R., her commanding officer, took her 
up the forty miles of the Johore Strait outside the swept channel and 
successfully slipped past the trawler guarding the boom gate. Two 
hours later Fraser sighted his target, the io,ooo-ton cruiser Takao, 
lying close inshore. 

She was anchored in such shallow water that XE$ had to push 
her way along the bottom to reach her without breaking surface. 
Once alongside, Fraser discovered that there was insufficient water 
beneath her keel for Xj to penetrate, except for a small space 
midships. Even there, the depth of water was insufficient for XEj 
folly to open her hatch. Her diver, Leading Seaman Magennis, 
managed to squeeze himself through the narrow space available, 


only to discover that the cruiser's bottom was so encrusted with 
barnacles that the limpet mines which JCfij carried would not stick. 
For three-quarters of an hour he was engaged in scraping off the 
barnacles and in fixing the limpets, tied in pairs by a line under the 
Takao's keel. After the withdrawal Magennis, although exhausted 
by his previous dive, again left the midget submarine to clear a 
limpet carrier which had failed to release and fall clear. 

XEj made the return journey down the Strait and a successful 
contact with the Stygian to reach Brunei, in Borneo, in safety. 
Behind her she left a wrecked and useless Takao. Both Lieutenant 
Fraser and Leading Seaman Magennis were awarded the Victoria 
Cross for their notable skill and gallantry. 

It was while these British midget submarines were carrying out 
their tasks around Singapore and Saigon that the Pacific Fleet was 
again called to action, this time in the final battle of the campaign. 
The home islands of Japan were now under constant attack, both 
by carrier-borne aircraft of the British and United States fleets and 
by land-based Super-Fortress bombers from the newly captured 
airfields in Okinawa. The British Pacific Fleet sailed from Sydney 
on 6th July to take part in this last battle, and on the lyth aircraft 
from the carriers Formidable, Victorious, and Implacable raided tar- 
gets in the Tokyo area. From that day until the end, the air war 
upon Japan was continued in a crescendo of devastation. The little 
that remained of the Japanese Fleet was destroyed in a carrier 
raid on the naval base of Kure that lasted from 24th to 28th July, 
and among the major casualties in these attacks were the battle- 
ships Haruna, Hyuga, and he, and the carriers Amagi and 
Katsuragi. Many others cruisers, destroyers, and submarines 
were sunk at their moorings. 

This was the knock-out blow, the virtual end of the Japanese 
Fleet. For a few days more the nation lay prostrate beneath the 
blows of the air forces, both maritime and shore-based. Japanese 
feelers for a "liberal" peace treaty were put out on 28th July, but the 
Allied Powers could have no mercy on a foe whose treachery and 
whose savage disregard of the human decencies had been so evident 
from the start of hostilities. After due warning had been given, 


Japanese cities were heavily bombed one by one, and the mounting 
tale of destruction grew. 

On the morning of 6th August, a lone American aircraft, flying 
high, dropped the first atomic bomb ever to be used in war. It 
exploded above Hiroshima, and devastated four square miles of the 
centre of the city. Three days kter a second atomic bomb fell on 
Nagasaki. It destroyed the industrial centre of the town, which 
contained among other installations the great Mitsubishi steel works. 
On the loth Japan proclaimed her readiness to accept unconditional 
surrender subject to an understanding that would leave intact the 
prerogatives of the Emperor as a sovereign ruler, and five days 
later the surrender was proclaimed to the world. 

The collapse of Japan, so much sooner than had at one time been 
anticipated, was not brought about by the use of the atomic weapons 
or by the entry of Russia into the Far Eastern War against Japan on 
8th August, though both these reasons were put forward as "face- 
savers" by the Japanese Prime Minister. The first inkling of a 
Japanese willingness to accept defeat had come on nth July with 
a request to Marshal Stalin from the Japanese Government that 
Russia should mediate in the war. That had been followed by the 
demand for a "liberal" peace on the 28th. But long before either of 
these dates Japan had been brought to a desperate state by the 
inexorable pressure of Allied sea power in the Pacific. Dependent 
on food and raw materials from overseas for her existence, with her 
fleet sunk and her sea power gone, she had but a single choice 
between surrender or a slow but certain death. 

It had been a remarkable campaign, and its ending was no less 
remarkable. Japan's home army was still strong and unbeaten, and 
at the close of the war she had twice as many combatant aircraft as 
on the day she had first launched her attack at Pearl Harbour. 
Only her fleet had been defeated. Because of that, because Japan 
was a maritime nation that depended for her all on the retention 
of her sea power, she had no alternative but to surrender. Her 
unbeaten army and her still strong air force were valueless when 
her shield of sea power was shattered. 

The war in the Pacific was a triumph for the United States Navy. 


Although British fleets operated both in the Pacific and in the 
Indian Ocean, although Australia, New Zealand, and Holland con- 
tributed naval squadrons, although the French battleship Richelieu 
took part in the Indian Ocean strikes against Japanese installations, 
the vast burden of this sea and air war was borne by the United 
States. It was they who, by their ingenuity and application, over- 
came the difficulties of operating at vast distances from their bases, 
who evolved the technique of keeping their great fleets at sea for 
months at a time. Placed beside their effort in this ocean, the con- 
tribution of Britain was small indeed. Yet, in viewing the war at sea 
as a whole, the balance swung not unevenly. If, in the Pacific, it 
was the United States who played the leading role at sea, in the 
Atlantic and the Mediterranean it had been Britain and Canada 
whose ships had carried the greater share of the burden. 

With the final surrender of Japan on i5th August the great task 
was over. Allied sea power, exercised in every ocean in the world, 
had once again, as it had so often done throughout the centuries, 
laid the foundations of inevitable victory. As all the fighting came 
to an end, the navies, armies, and air forces were brought slowly 
home for release, reorganisation, and redeployment for occupation 
duties. The tasks of war now lay behind them. Ahead, the tasks of 
peace stretched into a sombre and uncertain future, for high in the 
sky above the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki there now hung a 
vast question mark. The whole pattern of jwx had changed in the 
flashes of those two atomic explosions, and at the time no man 
could tell their implications for the naval future. 




A. Admiralty Air Branch Paper 

A.M. Admiralty Out Signal 

B.S. Battle Summary 

C.C.S. Combined Chiefs of Staff, Meetings and Papers 

C.O.S. Chiefs of Staff Committee, Meetings and Papers 

G.H.S. German History Series 

G.M. General Out Message 

J.S.M. Joint Staffs Mission 

M. Admiralty Military Branch Papers 

R.O. Admiralty Record Office 

S.W.C. Supreme War Council 

Chapter i 

1. Hansard^ I2th November, 1936, 

col. 1144. 

2. German Air Ministry Q.M.G. 


3. Air Ministry 5.38173, Part 3. 

4. C.O.S. 727. 

5. C.O.S. 797. 

6. W. S. Churchill. The. Second 

World War, Vol. I, p. 305. 

7. A.M. 1420/31. 

Chapter z 

1. C.O.S. (39) 102. S.W.C. ist 


2. W. N. Medlicott, The Economic 

Blockade, Vol. i, p. 88. 

3. C.O.S. (39) 102. 

4. S.W.C. (39) ist meeting. 

5. A.M. 14097 5th October. 

6. B.S. 26, pp. 8, 40. M.OI32I7/39- 

7. Commodore S.A.D. 1200/1 2th 











Weichold, Report on German 

Ibid., paras. 39, 40. 
Supp. L.G. No. 37989. 1 7th 

June, 1947. 
C.O.S. (39) 127. 
S.W.C. (39) 4th meeting. 
Fuehrer Conferences. Report by 

C.-in-C. Navy, loth October, 

Ibid. Report by C.-in-C. Navy, 

I2th December, 1939. 
S.W.C. (40), 2nd meeting. 
S.W.C. (40), ist meeting. 
See ante, ref. 4. 
C.O.S. (40) 270. 
C.O.S. (40) 216(5). 
S.W.C. (40), 2nd meeting. 
Fuehrer Conferences. Reports by 

C.-in-C. Navy on dates men- 
See T. K. Deny, The Campaign in 

Norway, p. 51. 
22io/i3th April; 1027/1 4th April. 

24. Vice-Admiral W. Wegener, Die 

Seestrategie des Weltkrieges^ 

p. 49- 

25. A. Carton de Wiart, Happy 

Odyssey, p. 174. 

26. London Gazette, 8th July, 1947. 

Supplement No. 38011, para. 

27. Log of Scharnhor st, 6th June, 1 940. 

28. Capt. T. H. Troubridge. Report 

of Proceedings, H.M.S. Furious. 
See ante, ref. 27. 


Chapter 3 

1. A.M. 23 2 5/3 rd May. 

2. A.M. 2249/7^1 May. 

3. C.O.S. (40) 1 33rd meeting. 

4. M. 011883/40. 

5. Ministry of Shipping, T.O. 

9436/40. (See Transport Dept.) 

6. A.M. 1944/22. R.O. Case 5458. 

7. Lord Gort's second Despatch, 

para. 44. 

8. A.M. 1857/26. R.O. Case 5458. 

9. V.A. Dover to Admiralty I344/ 

3rd June. 

10. A.M. 1910/26. 

11. For operations at Oran, see 

M.O 1 602 1/40, A.O742-6/40. 

12. A. 0789/40. 

13. C.O.S. (40) 543 ;W.P. (40)256. 

14. A.M. 1 840/5 th July to C.-in-C. 


15. M. 013582/40 of 20th July, 1940. 

1 6. Fuehrer Conferences, C.-in-C. 

Navy, 20th June, 1940. 

17. See especially Fuehrer Confer- 

ences. C.-in-C. Navy. i9th 
September, 1940; 1 2th October, 

1 8. C.O.S. (40), 2o6th meeting, 

minute 5. 

19. C.O.S. (40) 422. 

Chapter 4 

i. See Fuehrer Conferences, July- 
September, 1940. 







1 8. 




Fuehrer Conferences. Report of 
C.-in-C. Navy, nth July, 1940. 

Convoys S.C. 2 and H.X. 72. 

Convoys S.C. 7 and H.X. 79. 

C.O.S. (40) 183. 

Telegram to C.-in-C. Middle East 
annexed to C.O.S. (40) 521. 

See, e.g., C.-in-C. Navy's report 
to Hitler, Fuehrer Conferences, 
6th September, 1940. 

Ciano's Diplomatic Papers, 
p. 402. 

Directive No. 1 8, Fuehrer's Head- 
quarters, 12*11.1940. 

C.O.S. (40) 344. 

0/20568 Cipher 25/9 to War 

Directive No. 22. Fuehrer Con- 
ferences, nth January, 1941. 

C.O.S. (41), 7(0), and Annex II; 
see also C.O.S. (41) 22. 

Naval Conference at Merano, 
I3th and i4th February, 1941. 

Message from German N.L.O. 
Rome to Italian Naval Staff 
1 9th March, 1941. 

Admiral lachino, Gauda e Mat<t- 

T.O.O. 2326/28 from C.-in-C. 

3rd Supp. to L.G, 29th July, 1947, 
No. 38031. 

A.M. 2118/1/4/41. 

Chapter 5 

Adm. tel. 114. 

Adm. tel. 982/1 jth April. 
F/Libya/i, p. 167. 

F/Libya/i, p. 169. 

Adm. tel. 64. F/Libya/i, p. 182. 

Signal 1436/22. 

Fuehrer Conferences, Directive 
No. 25. 

C.O.S. (41) 42. Minute 2, Con- 
fidential Annex. 

Official Despatch No. 38293, 
p. 3049. 

9. C.O.S. Signal 101, icth May, 

10. Wavell to Prime Minister, i8th *' 

May, 1941. See W. S. Churchill, 
The Second World War, Vol. 
HI, p. 250. 

11. C.O.S. (41), i89th Meeting, 

minute 2 and Annex. F/Crete/i, 
p. 153. 

12. Telegram 68366. 

13. Telegram 0/67808. F/Crete/i, 

p. 164. 

14. Telegram 035. F/Crete/i, p. 166. 

15. 1305/29. F/Crete/i, p. 170. 2 ' 

1 6. For examples of these, see S. W. 

Roskill, The War at Sea, Vol. 

I, pp. 446-7. 3- 

17. Viscount Cunningham of Hynd- 

hope, A Sailor's Odyssey, 
p. 389. 

1 8. TelegramNo. 229, iTth June, 1 941 . 

19. G.M. 16656. 4- 

20. C.O.S. (41), 22oth Meeting, 

minute 7. 5- 

21. No. 97404: Hist. (B) 5 (Final) 

No. 70. 6. 

22. Report of Lieut.-Gen. Laverack, 

Operations of ist Australian 

Corps in Syria. 


Chapter 6 9* 

1. Fuehrer Conferences, Report by IO " 

C.-in-C. Navy, 14.11.1 940. 

2. C.O.S. (41) 284. " 

3. 600-900 tons, 15-16 knots. 

4. 1,300-1,500 tons, 20-24 knots. I2g 

5. Hansard, H. of C. Debates. 

10.12.1940. *3 a 

6. The ILAJ. in Maritime War, 

Vol. II, pp. 4I9-39- 

7. In January 1941 the average num- J 4* 

ber of surface escorts with a 
trade convoy was 1*8, a year 
later the figure was 4.5 . 15- 

8. For the full directive, see W. S. 

Churchill, The Second World 16. 
War, Vol. IE, pp. 107-9. 


Chapter j 

Commander G. A. Rotherham, 
R.N. The pilot was Lieut. (A) 
N. N. Goddard, R.N.V.R. In 
his official despatch after the 
action the C.-in-C remarked: 
"This skilful and determined 
reconnaissance is deserving of 
the highest praise, as is the 
initiative of Captain Fancourt 
(CO. of R.N.A.S. Hatston) in 
ordering it." 

See German account of this opera- 
tion, published in Fuehrer 
Conferences, pp. 201-13. 

A partial German reconnaissance 
of Scapa Flow in the afternoon 
of 22nd May reported four 
battleships, six cruisers, and 
several destroyers present. 

H.M.S. Prince of Wales, Signal 

H.M.S. Prince of Wales,, Report 
of Proceedings (M.oi 1222/41). 

Commander R. F. Jessel, The 
Bismarck Operation The Ger- 
man Aspect. R. U.S.I. Journal, 
February 1953, p. 18. 

Ibid., p. 20. 

C.-in-C. H.F. io47/2fth May. 

A.M. 1924/25. 

Captain D.4. Report of Proceed- 
ings (M.o878o/4i). 

P.G. 20418 (German Staff report 
on operation "Rheinubung"). 

Supp. to L.G. i4th October, 1947, 
No. 38098, paras. 92, 93. 

Fuehrer Conferences. Report of 
C.-in-C. Navy, I7th Septem- 
ber, 1941. 

F.O. U-boats, Reports of Convoy 
Operations (Second Series), PG. 

30943, PP- 9-"- 
War Diary of German Naval 

Staff, Pt.C4 PG.32I73, p. 139. 
Ibid., Pt. A, 22nd November, 


17. The Pearl Harbour Operation, p. 2. 
15. See S. E. Morison, The 
Rising Sun in the Pacific, p. 95. 


Chapter 8 

1. Fuehrer Conferences. Report of 4- 

C.-in-C. Navy, I2th January, 

2. Ibid. 

3. A.M. i252A/3rd February, 1942. 5- 

4. Dover Letter 145/211, F. 42, i6th <& 

February, 1942. 7- 

5. Full reports are in M.O21 89/42. 

6. Full reports of the destroyer ac- 

tions are in M.02228/42. 

7. The Times, I4th February, 1942. 

8. Supp. to L.G., 2Oth February, 

1948, No. 38214, Narrative, 
para. i. 

9. Malay Invasion Naval Operations 

(Japanese monograph, No. 

10. Log of messages received at Sin- 

gapore. C.-in-C. E.F. 741/4724 
in M.oi5i2/42. 

1 1 . Report of Flight-Lieutenant T. E. 

Vigors, R.A.F. C.-in-C. E.F. 
730/4742 in M.O25I/42. 
12.' 'Abda com" Directive to Supreme 
Command, attached to Des- 
patch of Supreme Commander 
(H.M.S.O. 1948). 

13. Ibid., p. i. 

14. U.S. Combat Narrative, The Java 

Sea Campaign, p. 52. 

15. W. S. Churchill to F. D. Roose- 

velt. 5th March, 1942. 

Chapter 9 

i. "The war ... is coming very close 
to home. . . . We have, accord- 
ingly, extended our patrol in 
north and south Atlantic wa- 
ters." At the end of his broad- 
cast the President declared an 
unlimited national emergency. 





1 6. 






Report of C.-in-C. Navy. Fuehrer 

Conferences, i2th December, 

S. E. Morison. U.S. Naval Opera- 

tions in World War II. The 

Battle of the Atlantic, I, p. 126. 
In an interview to a German war 

correspondent. Translated in 

Monthly Report, A[S Command 

(October 1942), p. 16. 
S. E. Morison, op. cit., I, p. 41. 
First Sea Lord papers, Vol. 16. 
German Naval Staff Study, 

PG. 32615, p. 39. 
Monthly A/S Report, April 


Report in M.o872o/42. 
Report in R.O. Case 8285. 
Report in M.oi 1161/42. 

R.O. Case 7607. 
C.O.S. (42) 28 (o), 
C.-in-C. H.F. Report. M.05o8oi/ 


Log of Tirpit^ (G.H.S. 4, p. 104). 
Sir D. Pound to Adm. King, i8th 

May, 1942. First Sea Lord 

Papers, Vol. 18. 
A.M. 2111/4/7/42 and A.M.2I36/ 


G.H.S./4, pp. 213-15. 
Diary of LuftflotteV. 
Report of Proceedings, H.M.S. 

Obedient, in M.O527 14/43. 

Fuehrer Conferences, Report of 
C.-in-C. Navy, 6th January, 

Chapter 10 

Campaigns of the Pacific War. 

U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey. 
Secret Information Bulletin No. i. 

Battle Experience from Pearl 

Harbour to Midway. 
Report of Flag Officer Command- 

ing Force F, ^09213/42. 

5. Remarks of the C.-in-C. Ply- 

mouth on Operation "Chariot", 
M.05386/42, Enclosure i. 

6. Report by Commander R. E. D. 

Ryder, ^[.05386/42, Enclosure 

7. Ibid. 

8. S. E. Morison, History of U.S. 

Naval Operations, Vol. II, p. 1 5. 

9. W. S. Churchill, The Second 

World War, Vol. IV, p. 404. 
10. Report on the Dieppe Raid by 

Combined Operations H.Q. 
n. M.O5 1641/42, para 42. 

12. See his telegrams to President 

Roosevelt, The Second World 
War, Vol. IV, pp. 475-87. 

13. C.O.S. (42) 41. 

14. Governor and C.-in-C. Gibraltar 

to War Office, 28.9.42. 

15. Report in M.O5 21 38/42. 

1 6. Admiral Cunningham's Despatch 

and Enclosures in M.O53475/ 


17. See General Eisenhower's Des- 

patch in M.oii67/46. 

Chapter n 

1. W, S. Churchill, TheSecond World 

War, Vol. IV, p. no. 

2. First Sea Lord Papers, Vol. 24. 

Sir D. Pound to Sir A. Salter. 
i3th July, 1942. 

3. Ibid., Vol. 21. Review by 


4. Ibid., Vol. 26. Sir H. Moore to 

First Sea Lord. 

5. H.X. 229 and S.C. 122. 

6. J.S.M. 843, 29th March, 1943. 

7. ONS. 5. 

8. Fuehrer Conferences, Report of 

C.-in-C. Navy, 6th January, 

9. Ibid., 26th February, 1943. 

10. Log of the Tirpit%. 

11. Ibid. 

12. The full British account of this 

attack is in M.O54868/43, 
M.05 578/44, and No. 1098^ 
S.M. 04351. 

13. Supp. to L.G. No. 38204, loth 

February, 1948. 

14. C.-in-C.'s Despatch in M.oi88i/ 


15. Fuehrer Conferences. Report of 

C.-in-C. Navy, 1 9th December, 

1 6. Gunnery narrative, H.M.S. Duke 

of York, in M.oi88i/44. 

17. C.-in-C.'s Despatch in M.oi88i/ 


Chapter 12 

1. General Montgomery to C.-in-C. 

Levant, i4th April, 1943. 

2. C.-in-C. Mediterranean, 1215 

A/8th May. 

3. See Fuehrer Conferences. Report 

of C.-in-C. Navy, i4th May, 
1943, para. i. 

4. Admiral Ramsay's report in 


5. M.044 89/44, para. 42. 

6. Ibid., para. 48. 

7. John Ehrman, Grand Strategy, 

Vol. V, p. i. 

8. Ibid., p. 8. 

9. NAF 265, 181233 July. 

10. C.O.S. (W) 717, 211040. 

11. File A 16-3/011, Serial ooio (Re- 

port of Vice-Admiral Hewitt, 

12. C.-in-C. Mediterranean 1038 

B/iith September. 

Chapter 13 

1. Viscount Cunningham of Hynd- 

hope, A Sailor's Odyssey, p. 

2. Ibid., p. 598. 

3. C.O.S. (W) 587, 2114207, April 



4. M.05^731/445 Appendix III. 

5. Admiral Moore's report in 2nd 

B.S. 1 28/026 of i oth April, 1944. 

6. Report of strike commander in 

H.M.S. Furious 025247 of 5th 
April, 1944. ^ 

7. H.M.S. Victorious 0137/6206 of 

5th April, 1944. 

8. C.C.S. 304/12, i2th February, 


9. C.O.S. (43) 41* (O). 

10. C.C.S. 465/1. 

11. Admiralty F.D.S./3/53, P.G. 

32100 (Krancke's Diary). 

12. ANCXF Report, Vol. i, p. 46. 

13. Ibid., Vol. II. Report of Naval 

Commander Eastern Task 

14. Ibid., Vol. Ill, Report of Naval 

Commander Force O. 

15. C.C.S. 304/12, i2th February, 


1 6. Mr. James Forrestal. The Times, 

1 8th April, 1945. 

Chapter 14 

1. For details of this battle see M. 

051642/42 (Official report by 
C-in-C, U.S. Pacific Fleet) 
and N.I.D. 0052799/47 (The 
Midway Operation B.I.O.S./ 
Jap. Docs./i6o2). 

2. Reports in M.c-5 1784/42, 

M.052o67/42,and M* 04229/43. 

3. M.059855/47, pp. 137-8. 

4. M.04956/45. 

In his despatch 
p. 143, para. 

368) Admiral 

Mountbatten says that H.M.S. 
Queen Elizabeth was required 
as he had learned that the 
Japanese were placing guns in 
caves overlooking the beaches. 

6. M.3 524/46, pp. 4<5,47- 

7. Full report in M.O9253/45. 

8. C.C.S. 417. 

9. Ibid., Annex IT. 

10. See Supp. to L.G., No. 38308, of 
ist June, 1948. 



Aandalsnes, 57-62 

Addu Atoll, 214, 215 

Admiralty: preparatory moves for war, 
32; forms raider-hunting groups, 41; 
anti-invasion measures, 71; collects 
small craft on south coast, 74; orders 
start of Operation "Dynamo", 76; 
orders bombardment of Tripoli, 129; 
orders concentration on .Bismarck, 
170; constructs escort carriers, 181; 
reinforces Far East, 187; sends ships 
to East Indies, 212; orders PQ 17 to 
scatter, 241; sends naval mission to 
Washington, 358 

Afnka Korps, 1 14, 115 

Agnew, Captain W. G., 191, 313 

Akyab, 212, 354,355 

Aleutian Islands, 252 

Alexander, A. V., 72, 85, 178 

Alexander, General Sir H., 270 

Alexandria, 87, 94, 112, 116, 195, 251, 

Algiers, 267, 270, 272, 298 

Altenfjord, 240 

Andaman Islands, 212, 253, 352, 356 

Anglo-German Naval Treaty, 38 

Antsirane, 255 

Antwerp, 336-9 

Arnhem, 337 

Arromanches, 335 

Auchinleck, Lieutenant-General, 64 

"Avalanche", Operation, 307 

Balikpapan, 209 

"Barbarossa", Operation, 109 

Barents Sea, 242 

Barker, Lieutenant-Commander J. F., 


Barry, Rear-Admiral C. B., 285 
Barthelemy, General, 82 
"Battleaxe", Operation, 145 
Bear Island, 240, 2.90, 321 
Beattie, Lieutenant-Commander S. H., 

260, 262 

Belgium, 71, 336 
Benghazi, ui, 193, 194 
Bergen, 57, 165, 166 
Bey, Rear-Admiral, 290-3 
Bickford, Lieutenant- Commander, 45 
Bizerta, 299 
Bjervik, 63 

"Bolero", Operation, 276, 278 
B6ne, 271, 298 
Bordeaux, 70 
Bougie, 271, 272 
Boulogne, 70, 74-6 
Brest, 70, 84, 90, 152, 153, 164, 171, 196, 


Brinckmann, Captain, 43, 170 
Brindisi, 304 
Brixham, 308 
Brunei, 363 
Bruneval, 257, 258 
Burnett, Rear-Admiral (later Admiral 

Sir) Robert, 246, 247, 289, 291, 292 

Backhouse, Admiral of the Fleet Sir 

Roger, 28, 29, 34 
Baillie-Grohman, Rear-Admiral, 130, 

Baldwin, Stanley, 21 

Calais, 70 

Cameron, Lieutenant D., 288 
Cape Bon, 191, 231, 297, 299 
Casablanca, 85, 267, 269-71, 296 
Catroux, General, 148 


Cavagnari, Admiral, 92 
Chamberlain, Neville, 26, 27, 71 
Cherbourg, 70, 83, 84, 96 
Chiefs of Staff, 18, 20, 22-6, 28-33, 40, 

4<5, 57, 73, 8^ "4, "5 139, *4<$> *48, 
150, 186, 209, 221, 235, 263-4, 296, 

305-7, 3 20 

Churchill, Winston, 35, 72, 73, 92, 107, 
128, 129, 139, 161, 179, 187, 188, 215, 
218, 262-5, 267, 274, 296, 304, 305 

Ciliax, Admiral, 201, 236 

Clark, General Mark, 269, 307 

Clayton, Rear-Admiral J. W., 241 

Clyde, 328 

Coastal Command, 67, 74, 156, 157, i59> 
240, 278, 280, 281, 327, 335, 340 

Colombo, 187, 214, 215, 349 

Combined Chiefs of Staff, 208, 263, 264, 
306, 307, 323, 324, 356 

JW 55 A, 288 
JW 55 B, 288 
PQ , 235 
PQ 13, *37 
PQ 17, ^39-43 
PQ 18, 244-5 
QPu,2 37 

Committee of Imperial Defence, 16, 18, 
20, 22, 23 

Coral Sea, 253 

Cork and Orrery, Admiral of the Fleet 
Lord, 62-4, 66, 95 

Crete, no, 127 

Crutchley, Rear-Admiral V., 347 

Cunningham, Vice-Admiral (later Ad- 
miral of the Fleet Sir) Andrew, 29, 34, 
92-5, 107, 108, no; Operation 
"Excess", 112-13; Battle of Matapan, 
116-24, 129; Battle for Crete, 133-43; 
192, 194, 195; Convoys to Malta, 
223-30, 263; Naval C.-in-C. for 
"Torch", 268; C.-in-C. Mediterran- 
ean, 297; invasion of Sicily, 301-4, 
312, 314; appointed First Sea Lord, 

Cunningham, Vice-Admiral (later Ad- 
miral Sir) John, 61, 62 
Cyprus, 145 

Dakar, 85, 108 

DalyeU-Stead, Lieutenant.-Commander 

J., 120, 124 

Darlan, Admiral, 84, 85, 271 
Dartmouth, 328 
Defence Requirements Sub-Committee, 

20, 21, 24 

"Demon", Operation, 130, 131 
Denmark Strait, 98, 151, 153, 164-6, 175 
Derna, in 

de Wiart, General Carton, 61, 62 
Diego Suarez, 254-7 
Dieppe, 265-7 

Dill, Field-Marshal Sir John, 263 
Dillon, Lord, 86 

Disarmament Conference (Geneva), 19 
Dobbie, General, 146 
Doenitz, Admiral (later Grand Admiral), 

150, 151, 178-80, 183, 184, 216, 218, 

249, 250, 283, 289, 290, 292, 295, 310, 


Doorman, Admiral, 186, 210, 211, 344 
Dover, 74, 76, 77, 196-200 
d'Oyley-Hughes, Captain, 67 
Duff Cooper, Mr., 86 
Dunkirk, 74, 76-83 
Durrant, Sergeant T. R., 262 
"Dynamo", Operation, 74, 76-83 

Edward-Collins, Vice-Admiral Sir 

Frederick, 61 
Eindhoven, 336 
Eisenhower, General D., 263, 323, 328- 


El Alamein, 194, 267-8 
Endrass, Lieutenant, 103 
Esmonde, Lieutenant-Commander E., 

171, 197, i99> i00 
"Excess", Operation, 112-13 

Faeroe Islands, 69 

Fegen, Captain E. S. F., 1 5 1 

"Felix", Operation, 101 

Fliegerkorps X, in, 113, 114, 1 1 6 

Flushing, 337 

Forbes, Admiral (later Admiral of the 

Fleet) Sir Charles, 32, 50, 53, 64, 67, 

73, 89> 259 


Force F, 254-7 

Force H, 87, 94, 112, 146, 154, 170, 173, 

174, 221, 254, 269, 298, 301 
Force K, 191, 193 
Force Z, 203-6 
France : staff talks with, 28; attacked by 

Germany, 71; overrun, 83; signs 

armistice with Germany, 85 
Fraser, Admiral Sir Bruce, 284, 288-94, 

353> 359 

Fraser, Lieutenant I. E., 362, 363 
Frauenheim, Lieutenant, 103 
Freetown, 98, 103 

Garrett, Major, 143 

Germany: rearms, 20; occupies Rhine- 
land, 22; war economy, 25; occupies 
Austria, 25; occupies Czechoslovakia, 
28; signs non-aggression pact with 
Russia, 32; attacks Denmark and 
Norway, 50; attacks Yugoslavia and 
Greece, 130; declares war on United 
States, 189; defeated in North Africa, 
296-9; "Atlantic Wall" breached, 
330-5; accepts -unconditional sur- 
render, 342 

Ghormley, Rear- Admiral, 217 

Gibraltar, 88, 94, 98, 101, 112, 181, 192, 
226, 227, 25 1, 268-71 

Glasfurd, Commander C. E n 66 

Glennie, Rear- Admiral, 134, 135 

Goebbels, Josef, 19 

Gort, General Lord, 76, 86 

Greece, British reinforcements to, 114, 
115; campaign in, 127; evacuations 
from, 130, 131 


Hague Convention, 38, 41 

Haifa, 195 

Hamilton, Admiral Sir Louis, 23943 

Hardy, Captain., 230 

Harstad, 62, 64, 65 

Harwood, Commodore (later Admiral 

Sir) Henry, 42-4, 223, 297 
Heraklion, 133, 140, 141 
"Herkules", Operation, 222 
Hewitt, Vice-Admiral, 304, 307-111 

Hiroshima, 364, 365 

Hitler, Adolf, 19, 22, 28, 38, 40, 46, 49, 
87, 91, 96, 97, 101, 107-9, 1I2 > *3> 
131, 145, I49> 1^5, 178, 180, 184, 189, 
191, 196, 216, 248-50, 251, 283, 294, 
295, 300 

Hodges, Commander, 256 

Holland, 71-3, 336 

Holland, Vice-Admiral L. E., 168 

Hong Kong, 251 

Horton, Admiral Sir Max, 278, 340 

"Husky", Operation, 297, 300 

lachino, Admiral, 1 16, 1 17 

Iceland, 69, 98 

Inshore Squadron, in, 146, 193, 298 

Inskip, Sir Thomas, 23 

Iraq, 145 

"Ironclad", Operation, 2547 

Italy: contraband control, 37; declara- 

tion of war, 88; declares war on 

United States, 189; invaded, 307; 

signs armistice, 309; surrenders fleet, 


Japan: aggression in Manchuria, 19; 
occupies Indo-China, 186; attacks 
Pearl Harbour, 188; strategy in 
Pacific, 344, 345; home islands 
attacked, 363-4; surrenders, 364 

Java, 21 1 

Java Sea, 210 

"Jubilee", Operation, 265, 266 

Juliana, Princess, 72 

Kaa Fjord, 322 

Kamranh Bay, 185 

Keyes, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger, 

Khota Baru, 202 

Kilindini, 350 

King, Admiral E., 316, 324, 358 
King, Rear-Admiral E. L. S., 134-6, *3* 
Kinloch, Lieutenant-Commander, 247, 


Kondo, Admiral, 204 
Krancke, Vice-Admiral, 327 


Kretschmer, Lieutenant Otto, 103, i6i 9 


Kuantan, 204 
Kurita, Admiral, 204 

La Pallice, 70 

Layton, Vice-Admiral (later Admiral 

Sir) Geoffrey, 61, 206 
League of Nations, 19 
Leatham, Vice-Admiral R., 127 
Le Havre, 70, 83 
Lemp, Lieutenant, 38 
Lesjeskog, 60 
Leyte, 359 
"Little Entente", 25, 31 
Liverpool, 102 
Loch Cairnbawn, 285 
Loch Ewe, 288 
Lorient, 90 
Lough Erne, 173 
Lutjens, Admiral, 53, 153, 165-7, 169, 

170, 172, 177 

MacArthur, General, 208, 210, 348 

Mack, Captain P., 121, 313 

Mackesy, Major-General, 62, 64 

Madagascar, 214, 253 

Magennis, Leading-Seaman, 362, 363 

Majunga, 254 

Malaya, 185, 202-6 

Malerne, 133, 134, 138 

Malta, 93, 94, 98, 112, 113, 128, 145, 190, 

i9 T > 193, I95> 22I -33> 2 5'> 2 68, 296, 


Mandalay, 353 

"Marita", Operation, 109, 114 
Marsala, 297 
Marschall, Admiral, 65 
Marshal, General, 307 
Martin, Captain, 178 
Mason, Captain D. W., 232 
Massawa, 127, 232 
Mast, General, 269 
Matapan, Battle of, 116-25 
McGrigor, Rear-Admiral R., 313, 339 
Menzies, Mr. R. G., 186 

Messina, 303, 304 

Midway Islands, 252 

Ministerial Defence Plans Committee, 22 

Molde, 60 

Montgomery, General Sir B. L., 270, 

298, 324 

Moore, Vice-Admiral Sir Henry, 322 
Morgan, Lieutenant-General F. E., 306, 

Mountbatten, Captain (later Admiral) 

Lord Louis, 62, 139, 352-4 
Mulberry Harbour, 325, 326 
Munich, 26, 27, 31 
Mussolini, Benito, 33, 92, 108, 189, 300 

Nagasaki, 364, 365 

Nagumo, Admiral, 214, 215 

Nakaya, Commander, 188 

Namsos, 57-62 

Naples, 304, 307, 308, 310 

Narvik, 47-58; first battle of, 55; 

second battle of, 55, 62-4, 238, 240 
"Neptune", Operation, 323-5, 328-36 
Newman, Lieutenant-Colonel A. C, 


Nijmegen, 337 
Nimitz, Admiral, 253, 348 
Noble, Admiral Sir Percy, 102, 1 60, 217, 


Nogues, General, 86 
Northern Patrol, 34, 44 
Norway : iron ore trade, 37, 46 ; 

attacked by Germany, 50; campaign 

in, 52-64; decision to evacuate, 60 

Okinawa, 360 

Oliver, Commodore G. N., 313 

Onslow, Captain R. G., 352 

Oran, 85-7, 267, 271, 272 

Oslo, 56 

"Overlord", Operation, 306, 323 

Palembang, 357 

Pangkalan Brandan, 357 

Pantellaria, 114, 115 

Pearl Harbour, 185, 186, 188, 189, 253 

Penang, 352 


Petain, Marshal, 85 

Phillips, Admiral Sir Tom, 187, 202-6 

Phillips, Lieutenant-Commander, 45 

Pizey, Captain C. T. M., 200 

Place, Lieutenant B. C. G., 288 

Plan R.4, 50, 51, 57 

Port Moresby, 252, 253 

Portsmouth, 328 

Pound, Admiral (later Admiral of the 

Fleet) Sir Dudley, 34, 67, 73, 85, 107, 

129, 139, 170, 178, 187, 194, 218, 

238-41, 275, 315 

Power, Admiral Sir Arthur, 354, 357 
Price, Captain, 256 
Pridham-Wippell, Vice-Admiral H. D., 

116, 117, 11922, 130 
Prien, Lieutenant Gunther, 40, 103, 161, 

"Quadrant" Conference, 3046 
Quebec, 394-6 

Rabaul, 209, 346 

Raeder, Grand- Admiral, 46, 100, 101, 

108, 109, 150, 151, 163, 178, 180, 184, 

216, 236, 238, 240, 248 
Ramree Island, 354-6 
Ramsay, Vice-Admiral (later Admiral 

Sir) Bertram, 7482, 196-200, 268, 

Rangoon, 212, 253, 353, 356 
Rashid Ali, 148 
Rawlings, Rear-Admiral (later Admiral 

Sir) Bernard, 136, 140, 141 
Reggio, 304, 307 
Reynaud, M, 73, 85 
"Rheinubung", Operation, 163, 164 
River Plate, Battle of, 42-4 
Rommel, General, 112, 115, 126, 127, 

191-5, 221, 222, 297, 298 
Roope, Lieutenant-Commander G. B., 

Roosevelt, President, 131, 151, 179, 180, 

Royal Air Force, 18, 20, 23, 24, 74, 77, 

82, 83, 96, 99, no, 132, 199, 201, 251, 

non-aggression pact with Germany, 
32 ; attacks Finland, 45; invaded by 
Germany, 149 
Ryder, Commander R. E. D., 258-62 

Russia: Allied advances to, 31; signs 

Saigon, 186 

St. Clair Ford, Commander A., 138 

St. Laurent, 33 5 

St. Malo, 70, 84 

St. Nazaire, 70, 84, 169, 172, 25762 

Sakishima Islands, 360 

Salcombe, 328 

Salerno, 3081 1 

Savage, Able-Seaman W. A^ 262 

Savo Island, Battle of, 346, 347 

Scapa Flow, 32, 34, 39, 40, 50, 58, 62, 

103, 152, 164, 167, 284, 321, 328 
Scarpanto, 134 
Scheldt, River, 337-9 
Schepke, Lieutenant Joachim, 103, 161, 


Sephton, Petty-Officer A. A., 133 
Sherbrooke, Captain R, St. V., 246-* 

Acasta, 65, 66, 68 
Achates, 247 
Achilles, 42, 43 
Afndi, 62 

Ajax, 42, 43, 116, 122, 134, 140 
Ameer, 355 
Anson, 322 

Anthony, 254, 256, 257 
Arandora Star, 83 
Arbutus, 161 
Ardent, 65, 66 
Arethusa, 61, 71 
Argus, 223 
Ariadne, 358 
Ark Royal, 21, 39, 63-5, 67, 94, 95, 

112, 170, 173-6, 187, 19* 
Athenia, 38, 40 
Atherstone, 259 
Attacker, 308, 309 
Auckland, 61 
Audacity, 181-3 
Aurora, 193, 298, 310 


Ships: British and Dominion Continued 
Australia, 347, 359 
Avenger, 244, 245, 275 
Barham* 116, 117, 123, 124, 129, 192 
Battler, 308, 309 
Bedouin, 228, 230 
Belfast, 289-91, 293, 294 
Berwick, 235 
Bideford, 78 
Birmingham, 61, 71, 72 
Breconshire, 223, 226 
Britannic, 170 
British Loyalty, 257 
Brocklesby, 261 
Cairo, 59, 64, 228, 230, 231 
Calcutta, 61, 143 
Camellia 9 161 
Campbeltown, 258-62 
Canberra, 347 
Canterbury, 78 

Car&&, 59, 135, 136, 224, 302 
Centurion, 227, 228 
CharybJis, 310 
C/an Macalister, 78 
Clement, 41 

Cleopatra, 225, 298, 301 
O)4&, 68 
Codrington, 72 
Cornwall, 214, 215, 349 
Cowac*, 48, 175, 176, 178 
Courageous, 38, 39, 68 
Coventry, 67, 133 
Crested Eagle, 78 
Cromarty, 255 
Cumberland, 42, 43 
Cwrofflo, 59 
Curlew, 63 
Cyclops, 216 
Decoy, 140, 142 
Devonshire, 61 
Diadem, 339 
2?za<?, 140, 142, 298 
Z^orrc &ar, 42 

Dorsetshire, 177, 178, 214, 349 
Duchess of York, S$ 
Duke of York, 235, 289-94 
JEfc 94, 95, "7, 223, 226, 231 
, 237 

Edinburgh, 170, 237, 241 

Electro, 203, 205, 206, 210 

Emperor, 321 

Encounter, 211 

Enterprise, 317, 318 

Erebus, 302, 338 

Eskimo, 302 

Euryalus, 224, 225, 298, 310 

Exeter, 42, 43, 210, 211 

Express, 8 1, 203, 204 

Fenella, 78 

Fernie, 261 

jRfc 136, 137 

Foresight, 237 

Forester, 237 

Formidable, 117, 119, 120, 123, 132, 

139, 192, 214, 360, 363 
Franconia, 83 
Freesia, 255 
Furious, 64, 223, 321 
Galatea, 61, 71, 192 
Gallant, 78 
Georgic, 83 
Glasgow, 317, 318 
Glorious, 60, 64-8 
Gloucester, 113, 116, 136, 137 
Glowworm, 52, 53 
Gourko, 82 
Grafton, 78 
Grenade, 78 

Greyhound, 78, 123, 124, 136 
Hambledon, 312 
#ara>, 55 
Havock, 55, 72 
Hereward, 73, 140-2 
/fcrmw, 39, 87, 187, 214, 215, 349 
Hermione, 255 
7&ro, 225 

//W, 165, 167, 168, 169 
Hostile, 55 
Hotspur,)), 140,141 

r, 5 5, 308,309 
Hyperion, 72 
Icarus, 1 68 
//#, 134 

Illustrious, 94, 112, 113, 192, 255, 351, 
35*, 357 

37 8 

Imperial) 140, 141 

Implacable, 363 

Indefatigable, 357, 360 

Indomitable, 187, 192, 214, 254, 255, 

*99> 3i 357, 3^0 
Intrepid, 78 
Ithuriel, 228 
Jackal, 138, 140 
Jaguar, 78, 193 

Jamaica, 246, 247, 289, 290, 294 
Janus, 128 
/ervw, 128, 134, 225 
JervisBay, 151 
/w/io, 134 
Jupher, 211 

Kandahar, 128, 136, 137, 143, 193 
Kashmir, 138 
A*A, 75, 76 
AW/y, 72, 138 
Kelvin, 138, 143, 225 
Khedive Ismail, 350 
Kimberley, 128, 140 
.King George V, 164, 165, 167, 176, 

i?7 23 5, ^37, 359 
Awg Orry, 78 
Kingston, 128, 135-7, 225 
Air>&*, 138, 139, 225 
Laforey, 254 
Lancastria, 84 
Zttwi, 191* 3, 225 
Lightning, 254 
ZrVe/x, 225 
Liverpool, 228 
loosestrife, 280 
Lorina, 78 
Mackay, 78 
Malaya, 153 
Manchester, 61, 231 
Manxman, 81, 222 
Maori* 175-7, 191 
Maplin, 181 
Marne, 228 
Matchless, 228 
Mauritius, 302, 310 
Mohawk, 128 
Monas Isle, 76 
Monas Queen, 78 
Montrose, 78 

Naiad, itf, 136, 152 

Afcpfer, 143 

Nelson, 268, 299, 310 

Neptune, 193 

Newcastle, 44 

Nigeria, 231 

Afitam, 134, 143 

Afor#, 165, 167, 168, 170-2, 176, 

289, 291, 293, 339 
Normannia, 78 
Nubian, 62, 128, 139, 302 
Obdurate, 246, 247 
Obedient, 246-8 
OAib, 231, 232 
Onslow, 246 
Or#r, 280 
Orwn, 116, 117, 119-22, 134, 140, 142, 

298, 310 
Orwell, 246, 247 
Otranto, 83 

5, 227 

9, 268 
Partridge, 228, 230 
Pelican, 280 

Penelope, 53, 193, 223, 298, 310 
/VM, n<5, 135, 143, 211 
Petard, 350 

o/ JTa/er, 165, 167-72, 179, 

186, 187, 202-6, 212, 215 
Protector, 139 
Punjabi, 237 
Pursuer, 321 
Qifen, 339 

Queen EG^abeth, 192, 355 
Ramffies, 153, 170, 255-7 
Rawalpindi, 44 

/2mm//i, 50, 52, 53, 67, 170, 173 
Repulse, 53, 67, 165, 167, 186, 202-6, 

212, 215 
Revenge, 170 
Roberts, 338 
/fcxiwy, 50, 67, 153, 170, 173, 176, 

Romney, 255 
-foya/ Oafc, 39, 103 
Royal Sovereign, 81 


Ships: British and Dominion continued 
Saladin, 78 
Salmon, 45 
Saumare^, 289, 357 
Savage, 289 
Sceptre, 285 
Scorpion^ 289 

Sealion, 197 
Seanymph, 285 
Searcher, 321, 339 
Seawolf, 235 
Seraph, 269 
Shakespeare, 308 

Sheffield, 61, 174-6, 246, 247, 289, 
291, 292 

#A, 175,176,191,225 
Sirius, 298 
Somali, 33 

Southampton, 58, 61, 67, 1 13 
.Spar*, 362 
Spear fish, 56 
Stalker, 308, 309 
Statesman, 357 
5*or, 183 
Strathaird, 83 
Stuart, 123 
Stubborn, 285 
Sturgeon, 260 
Stygtan, 362, 363 

Suffolk, 165, 167, 168, 170-2 
, 94 

~^"- > ) 
Tactician, 351 
Tally Ho, HZ 
Tarantula, 359 
Tartar, 302 
Tenedos, 203, 205 
Thrasher, 285 
Trenchant, 361, 362 
Trident, 235 
Trinidad, 237, 241 
Truant, 55 
Truculent, 285 
Trumpeter, 339 
Tynedale, 259 

Uganda, 302, 311 
Ulster Prince, 131 
Unbeaten, 147 
Unicorn, 308, 309 
Unique, 147 
Unison, 302 
Unrivalled, 302 
Unruffled, 302 
Unseen, 302 
Upholder, 147 


Valiant, 64, 67, 112, 117, 123, 134, 

Vampire, 203 
Vanoc, 161 
/^/zettfl, 75, 76 
Venomous, 72,75, 76 
Venus, 357 
ffimy, 72 
Verulam, 357 
Victorious, 165, 167, 171, 172, 235, 

236, 321, 322, 353, 357, 359, 3<$3 
Vidette, 280 

Vimiera, 75 
/, 78 
Warspite, 55, 58, 112, 116, 117, 119, 

123,134, 136,214,310,311,338 
Welshman, 222 


Windsor, 75 
Wivern, 72 
^o/rey, 76 
Wolverine, 161 
JT.5, 286, 287 
j<r, 286-8 
o, 286 

362, 363 

3 80 

York, 61, 62 
Zulu, 175 


de Ruyter, 211 
Isaac Sweersy 191 
Java, 211 
Tromp, 352 


Bevespers, 255 
Bison, 62 
Bretagne, 87 
Dunkerque, 85, 87 
yieon Zfarr, 84, 85 
Montcabn, 61 
Provence, 87 
Richelieu, 84, 85, 87, 3<>5 
Strasbourg, 85, 87 

Admiral Graf Spec, 33, 41, 42-4, 48, 

Admiral Hipper, 50, 52, 65, 66, 151-3, 

763, 237-40, 242 
Admiral Scheer, 1513, 163, 164, 233, 

235, 238, 240-2 
Alsterufer, 317 
Altmark, 33, 42, 48 
Anton Schmidt, 55 
Berndt von Arnim^ 52 
Bismarck, 151, 163^79 
-ff/adt JPateA, 340 
Deutschland, 33, 41, 44 
Friedrich Eckholdt, 247 
Gneisenau, 44, 45, 50, 51, 53, 65, 66, 

68, 151-3, 163, 164, 195> I9^> J 98, 


Hannover, 181 
Hermann Schoemann, 237 
Karlsruhe, 55 
Konigsberg, 55 

, 33, 56, 237, 283, 286 
NUrnlerg, 45 
Prwf jEagw, 151, 163-71, 195, i$MS, 

198, 233 
Scharnhorst, 44, 45, fo, 51, 53, <$y, 66, 

68, 151-3, 163, 164, 195, 196, 198, 
201, 283, 286, 288-95, 317 

Tirpitz, 233, 235-42, 258, 259, 283, 
285-88, 321-3 

Z7.5P, 39 

U.3Q, 38, 40 

U.47, 40, 161 

9, 161 
7.200, 161 
3 9 216 
5, 280 
2, 280 

C)) 28O 

^, 280 
Z7.jz.73, 280 
, 342 
i 9 280 
^, 280 

, 280 

7.557, 19* 
7.6*0 z, 290 
7.6*30, 280 
7.6-3*, ^80 
C7.<555>, 280 
7.7*0, 280 
7.75*, 280 

, 280 

Westerwald, 33 
Wtfhelm Heidkamp, 55 
Z.2.6, 237 


Alberico da BarKano, 191 
Alberto di Giussano y 191 
Alfieri, 124 
Andrea Doria, 312 
Bolzano, 93 
Caw Dui&>, 312 
Carducci, 124 

Ships: Italian continued 
Conte Rosso, 147 
Dutiio, 95 
Flume, 122-4 

Giovanni Delia Bande Nera, 224 
GtuRo Cesare, 93 
Gorilla 224 
Italia, 310, 311 
Littorio, 94, 224, 225, 228 
Pola, 121-4 
Regolo y 312 
Tfomfl, 311, 312 
Trento, 224 
Vittorio Veneto, 116, 119-22, 124, 

Z<zra, 122, 124 


Akagi, 345 
Amagi, 363 
Askigara, 362 
Hagura, 358 
Haruna, 363 

7*?, 363 


Katsuragi, 363 
Kurna^ 352 
/.^a, 257 
7.55, 204 

Takao, 362, 363 

Stord, 289 


Batory, 83 
Piorum, 175 
SotiesJdy 83 


Gottland, 165 

Astoria, 347 
Augusta, 179 

Chicago, 347 
Enterprise, 252, 253 
Hornet, 252, 253 
Houston, 211 



Saratoga, 351 

Savannah, 311 

Vincennes, 347 
, 188 
, 223, 226 


Sicily, 111,297,300-4 
Sidi Rezegh, 193 
Simson, Captain D. J. R., 75 
Singapore, 18, 19, 187, 203-6, 349 
Singora, 202 
Sirte, first battle of, 223-6; second 

battle of, 227-8 
Somerville, Vice-Admiral (later Admiral) 

Sir James, 87, 94, 95, 170, 173, 194, 

214, 215, 313, 315, 349-53 
South Beveland, 337 
Spartivento, Cape, 95 
Sphakia, 140, 142, 143 
Stalingrad, 272 
Stokes, Commander (later Captain) 

G. H., 191, 313 

Sturges, Major-General, 254, 256 
SudaBay, no, 132 
Suez Canal, 88 

Supreme War Council, 48, 84, 85 
Surabaya, 203-11, 351 
Syfret, Vice-Admiral A., 233, 256, 257, 

Syria, 145 

"Talon", Operation, 354 

Tamatave, 254 

Taranto, 93; Fleet Air Arm attack on, 


"Ten Year Rule," 17, 18 
Tobruk, in, 126, 145, 146, 193 
Tokyo, 252, 363 

"Torch", Operation, 264, 266, 268-72 
Tovey, Admiral (later Admiral of the 

Fleet) Sir John, 152, 164-78, 235, 236, 

239-41, 244, 246, 248, 284 


Trieste, 304 

Trincomalee, 187, 214, 215, 349 

Tripoli, 129 

Tromso, 323 

Trondheim, 46, 5> 57, 5 8 , &*> 2 33> 2 38, 


Troubridge, Rear- Admiral T., 313 
Tunis, 271, 272 

United States: passes Neutrality Law, 
3,2 ; agrees to technical naval talks, 91 ; 
declares war on Germany and Italy, 
216; reluctance to institute convoy, 
216; Pacific strategy, 348, 349; 
attacks on Japanese home islands, 
364; accepts surrender of Japan, 364 

Vaagsfjord, 58,62 

Vian, Captain (later Vice-Admiral Sir) 

Philip, 62, i74-<5> 2*3-6> 3 o8 > 3i3> 

33> 357 

Wake-Walker, Rear- Admiral, i<58 
Walcheren, 337, 338 

Walker, Commander (later Captain) 

F. J., 183, 276 
Wanklyn, Lieutenant-Commander M. 

D., 147 

Warburton-Lee, Captain, 55 
War Cabinet, 22, 64, 73, 83, 85, 86, 133, 

139, 146, 150 

Washington Naval Conference, 16, 17 
Washington Naval Treaty, 17, 18, 20, 

Wavell, General Sir Archibald, 109, 

no, in, 114, 115, 127, 133, 139, 209 
Wegener, Admiral, 59, 68, 69 
Welman, Lieutenant-Commander 

West KapeUe, 337-8 
Weygand, General, 85 
Whitworth, Vice-Admiral, 50, 53, 55, 


Wilhelmina, Queen, 72 
Wilheknshaven, 201 
William Pitt Bay, 254 
Willis, Vice-Admiral (later Admiral) 

Sk Algernon, 299, 301